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Rodgr Thunderguts
03:00:52 PM 10/14/19
Soooo much turkey.... need a nap haha!

08:59:27 AM 10/14/19
And to the others who want to celebrate from afar!

08:58:24 AM 10/14/19
Happy Canadian Thanksgiving to the Canadian Thainites !

12:30:36 PM 10/13/19
Nature Night begins in about 1.5 hours from the time of this post. That will be 2pm CDT (GMT -5).
Please check page 1 of the Nature Night: Phase 4 thread to see the map to the Wild Grove where we meet !

I will be on as Dauken. Please shoot me a tell if you have questions !

10:44:10 PM 10/10/19
Heh heh heh heh heh! Yeah yeah!

03:59:08 PM 10/10/19
Vladislav! Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt more!
*Is impaled*

02:04:53 PM 10/10/19
Don’t hurt me, no more!!heart

12:31:41 PM 10/10/19
Baby don't hurt me

11:41:45 AM 10/10/19
What is love?

10:17:58 AM 10/10/19
Necro night will be starting in a little under 3 hours! Hope to see folks there!

The Island of Thain :: Forums :: Off-Topic :: Music, Books, Films and TV
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Author Post
03:43:15 PM 04/25/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 490
Past: Voidstone [pt.1]

The gang violence and factional strife that had been plaguing the city for nearly two years was petering out, and some kind of stability had returned to the social and cultural life of Obsidian City's Northside. The whole affair was now being called the Law Counsel Purges, and the great and the good of the city were congratulating themselves and each other on the historic blow they'd struck against the corruption and degeneracy of the Old Guard – as they now called the Babas and Mamas they were busy taking the place of.

Sai knew this because it had been a favourite subject of conversation and debate at gatherings and parties for months now both at home and away, and she'd heard a lot of opinions and impressions from a lot of different Mamas and Babas who were variously benefiting or suffering from the upheaval.

Since the first riots had rocked the city, the Nashivaari had been maintaining and even extending their own network by keeping a number of boats available at the Northside docks for any and all of their friends and associates to use at a moment's notice. For a few months, the Nashivaar estate itself had become as important to the political life of Obsidian City as any of the city Counsels; indeed a few official Counsel Sessions had been held in the Nashivaar Assembly Hall, near to their private docks. The guest apartments of both houses were more or less permanently full, and Sai was kept extremely busy co-ordinating the body girls and even attending more important visitors herself, sometimes for days at a time.

Needless to say, she was also benefiting from the fact that most of the people she attended at the Nashivaar estate were arriving with everything they owned in the world, having been dispossessed of fortune and property and very often also reputation. Luckily for her, most of what these wealthy refugees still owned was in the form of small, valuable objects they had slipped quickly into pockets and underwear while making their escape – and which she naturally found easy to slip quickly into her pockets and underwear.

Sai's collection of gemstones and jewellery was becoming rather impressive and she'd already had to move it from her own store box in case it was discovered. She'd found a loose stone in a secluded corner of the deepest cellar, and dug a little alcove behind it where she put a waxed leather satchel containing everything she'd stolen. It was getting full and heavy, but she was sure it still wasn't enough to buy herself – not from this man who could have just about anything he wanted at any time. She knew she'd need more than these trinkets, to persuade Baba to part with her – but the collection was a good start, and she hoped one day things would change – or she'd find something unique that Baba might truly value more than her.

Such a thing did eventually appear – and to her regret, Sai only found out about it after Baba did; in fact, she found out about it from him, because he told her one spring evening that she would have to steal it.

''Steal what, Baba?'' she asked curiously, as if such a notion wouldn't even have occurred to her unless he'd suggested it.

He grinned, absolutely believing these games of crime and subterfuge appealed to her as much as they did to him. ''A necklace, Sai. Just a black gem on a black chain, essentially – but the gem is special, and very beautiful—''

Sai was burning with curiosity as he went on to describe the necklace so she would recognize it. He told her she'd be travelling alone and in secret to a Nashivaari guest house just outside the estate, where she would join a party of entertainers who had been hired to perform at the Name-day celebrations of a certain Mama Soriya, matriarch of the Seleliyasi, who was living there since her partner had been executed for his crimes against the City and People.

Mama Seleliya had come to plead for refuge and Baba Nashivaar had been extraordinarily generous and given her a large house overlooking the bay where he usually had important friends staying. There'd been a lot of social mingling between the houses, and Sai had been wondering why she had never been part of any. Now, she understood.

He's been planning this for— She wanted to roll her eyes, but didn't dare.

So this is why he— She wanted to smile, but she knew better.

Is he really, truly going to break his trust as host? She only just managed not to frown.

A discomfiting gleam in his eyes and an intensity at the edge of his voice suggested that whatever this thing was, it was more than just a necklace – even more than a very beautiful one. She also quickly realised that the necklace itself wasn't even what interested him – it was only the stone he wanted. Voidstone, he called it, and from what he told her about it she thought no such a thing could possibly exist; She briefly even wondered if this wasn't really just some strange test of loyalty. In any case it wouldn't be the first, and Sai resolved to treat it as she always treated Baba's orders.

Do it the best I can, and do it with a smile!

Again her name would be Bilandu, but this time she was a dancer from Northside who was nothing to do with Nashivaar and was only arriving through the estate for reasons of discretion. Once he'd finished telling her what she needed to know, he called for just one hand slave and together they painted a stunning Bilandu – disguising the Nashivaar tattoo by turning it into part of an all-over web of contour-hugging colours, before dressing her in floaty, wispy robes under which her painted body was quite visible. Then he dismissed the dresser and walked Sai alone and in silence to the quiet back lobby of the house.

She was surprised that Mama wasn't there as well; even more surprised when Baba grabbed her shoulders and whispered urgently, conspiratorially, ''Sai, just get in, get hold of the thing however you can, and get out again quickly. Your transport will be waiting for you and will move in a moment, the driver has instructions too. And one last thing—''

He produced from the pocket of his robe an elegant black velvet purse on a thin golden cord, and he hung it carefully over one of her shoulders. ''Inside you'll find the usual requisites – perfume, face paint, clips, sleeping draught in case you need it. When you've got hold of the necklace, put it in here—'' He undid a hidden clasp to show her how a second section opened, and then closed it, continuing, ''—whatever you do, Sai, don't put it on – do you hear me? Put it in here and get back in the wagon – understand?''

Sai frowned, wondering what could possibly be so important – but she nodded obediently and straightened the purse on its cord beneath her robe. ''Of course, Baba. In here.'' She tried to give a significant, serious look, trying appear coolly prepared and completely aware of the gravity of her task.

He went on nodding slightly till he made a satisfied Hmm to show he believed her, and made a heavy, resigned sigh. The he turned her around, patted her on the back and she trotted across the yard to the wagon, got into it and closed the door. The driver cracked a whip and the animals pulling lurched away, crying out in shock.

As her wagon sped off she looked at him from the window and saw a disturbed and worried frown on his usually proud, defiant face. By the time the wagon had turned out of sight some way down the road, he had still not moved. As she lost sight of him around the first bend, she couldn't help wondering with concern what exactly it was he'd sent her to do.

Still, it's not as if I have any choice.

She simply had to trust that as before, what he got her into, he would also get her out of.

* * *

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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03:50:03 PM 04/26/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 490
Past: Voidstone [pt.2, 3, 4, 5]

The party was noisy and smoky, hot and sweaty. Pleasure suffused every mote and lurked in every corner, and laughter was nearly as loud as the music that pumped through the house from several groups of players – each group performing different styles, that somehow together mixed perfectly throughout house and garden.

Mama Seleliya's network of friends clearly hadn't forgotten her, even if the Law Counsel had ruined her; it was amazing how many guests were gathered in such a small space— Small compared to Baba's house, anyway!

Even more surprising was how many were painted and dressed just as Bilandu was, and that they all knew the same dances as her just as well as she did. Evidently a number of the songs and dances Nashivaar Baba and Mama liked were popular in this house, there were even bursts of Anthem singing that said quite clearly who tonight's real patrons were.

However the conversations were as dull as usual, the faces the same blandly beautiful social masks, perfectly sculpted and knowingly poised. She acted the perfect plaything that Mama Seleliya expected, and only had to perform once – because the Mama told her to.

Soriya had noticed Bilandu wasn't taking any turns on the stage and in the end she drunkenly insisted. ''Why – why are you still here distracting me?'' She grinned lasciviously. ''You – you should be up there, so everyone can see you – ehh – beautiful! Go, go and dance now, eh!''

She was calling the drummers. ''You! Make a six-beat-bounce, go!''

The drummers struck up a jaunty and vigorous shuffle that Sai was more than familiar with. The melody the musicians played over it wasn't her favourite but she knew it, and with this kind of six-beat she knew a few tricks that would work effortlessly. She wound her way to the raised central section of floor, and swept her eyes across the room, seeing a few faces she vaguely recognized though nobody seemed to recognize her. She knew this dance would have to be very different from normal and decided that as she wasn't meant to be a slave here. Memorable, it needs to be – but not too much like Sai!

As she spun around she allowed herself to voice just a tiny hum, deep in her chest, and allowed her aenimus to fill her till she thought she might burst from it. As she felt herself buzzing and rippling inside, she also felt her limbs becoming lighter, more flexible. Her back and hips were flowing like oil, and every movement was coming so naturally that she wondered if she would ever be able to stop.

The dance that never ends! Finally, here we are—

Her limbs were following the twists and turns of the melody and she felt as if she were rising from the ground; she barely registered the chorus of gasps from all around. Something in her was hesitating but she knew tonight she had no reason to hold anything back; tonight she was not a slave called Sai but a dancer called Bilandu – a free woman here to delight and amaze.

So that is what I'll do!

She began crossing the floor, dancing between the people watching her, gleaming from her eyes into theirs and sparking aenimus here and there as she drew her fingers over bodies that twitched in shock and pleasure from her touch. The audience were clapping along and some were reaching out for her as she passed, drawing raw aenimus from her and gasping with pleasure as flowed and slipped through their hands. She wove on through the faces, bouncing around and always coming back to Mama Seleliya, making her the focus of every look and movement. She wove flowery filaments of bright colour around the room and though they faded quickly, the audience reacted with awe; ooohs and aaahs and little cries of wonder accompanied Bilandu's spiralling dance of light.

Eventually, she slowed; her touches became less energized, her movements simpler and less colourful, and her eyes lost their glimmer as she drew her energy back inside with a few deep breaths. But her smile said wonder and joy; though she'd danced those moves before she'd never dared to express aenimus like that. It was the first time she remembered moving in such a way – but there was something touchingly familiar about it that she couldn't quite place. She put it out of her mind as the music came to its end and she had to make some kind of graceful finish for something that had nearly overwhelmed her. It wasn't easy; she finally managed to stop moving only by dropping to her knees on the final beat and pushing her forehead onto the rug, directly in front of Mama Seleliya.

There was a moment of silence in the room as Bilandu's stillness sank in to the minds who had just watched her dance, and then screams and cheers and applause exploded all around, and Mama Seleliya reached down from the couch she was sitting on, to raise Bilandu's face from the floor. She beckoned with her head that she should stand, and as the dancer stood to yet another rush of congratulating voices, Mama took her hand, shifted herself up the couch and with a smile made Bilandu sit beside her.

She sat as she was told, and for the first time since she had arrived she just looked at Mama Seleliya, rather than trying to do eye-tricks on her. As soon as she made the eye contact, Mama laughed, ''You, ha! You are mine tonight, nobody else is having any! That was truly the most extraordinary dance I've ever seen, and I thank you! What is your name, girl?''

''Bilandu, Mama. I'm pleased you enjoyed it.'' She smiled, graciously confident, but she kept her eyes down. The conversation around was picking up again, and the music had restarted. No dancers were performing though.

They're all too scared to go after that!

Mama Seleliya's eyes glittered with intrigue, and her voice had an edge of breathlessness that betrayed her excitement. ''Where did you learn to do – those things – with aenimus? Have you studied the Arts? Are you a practitioner, a member of any convocations?'' She leaned over to her right, to a small table next to her, and poured some thick black liquid from a square green bottle into two delicately carved glasses, handing one to Bilandu with an indulgent smile.

Bilandu took it with a grateful nod, but she knew had to think of something quickly. She immediately said the most obvious thing, because it was true. ''My mother was Marathy. She taught me some things.'' Then she decided that was too sad and thought of something more fun. 

''Also, Mama,'' she whispered on conspiratorially, ''It's quite surprising what some people in this city will teach, if you know how to get them to!''

Mama Seleliya blinked. ''Well, that is an interesting thing to say! I don't imagine you'd be in a position to furnish details of such – teachings? I won't even ask what you offer in return—'' She let her voice tail off with a meaningful raised brow and a knowing smirk.

Bilandu giggled her deepest belly laugh and shook her head. ''No Mama – please don't!'' She paused, looked directly at Soriya again and whispered even lower, making it very obvious she didn't want to be heard. Mama Seleliya leaned in, fascinated. ''Thing is, Mama – if I tell you about someone else, then what's to stop me telling someone else about you?'' She was beginning to smile and Mama Seleliya was chuckling even before Bilandu finished, ''I'm very discreet, Mama – and I know everybody likes it that way!'' She looked up, grinning wickedly, but with a frankness of regard that made Mama Seleliya's amused chuckle become a bright peal of laughter.

''Bilandu, you're absolutely right! Let's drink to discretion, eh?'' They each raised their glass and drank a sip with a look of mutual understanding.

Not getting wasted though! Just look like it – tiny sips – tip it somewhere – there, another cup – they won't mind—

Small talk and banter bounced between Mama and her beautiful group of sycophantic friends, Bilandu racked her brains trying to think of some way to introduce the subject of the very beautiful necklace without giving her game away. As she followed the streams of chatter flowing around her she began to understand what Mama Seleliya loved best was feeling that she herself was the subject of gossip. Whenever the conversation turned to what people were saying about Soriya Seleliya, the Mama became animated, passionate, and her laughter took on a deeper, livelier tone. Bilandu spent a while merrily showing how drunk she was becoming and tipping away every refill, before finally – and doing her best to show drunken curiosity only just beating professional discretion – she leaned across to Mama Seleliya and whispered, ''Mama, I can't not ask any more, it's killing me!'' Then she paused, apparently bursting to continue but not sure if she should.

As Mama Seleliya looked curiously at her, she went on as if that was enough. ''Mama! I heard a – something, about you. Not long ago, actually. Would you like me to tell you what I heard?'' She grinned winningly, as if the hearing would absolutely be worthwhile.

Mama Seleliya laughed and her eyes widened in surprise. ''You heard a something about me? How delightfully cryptic! Haha! But in any case Miss Bilandu, I feel you'll tell me even if I say no!''

Bilandu smiled sheepishly and shrugged. Mama laughed indulgently, reached out and stroked her face with a crooked finger, and Sai looked up as if her self-control was finally gone.

She whispered, ''Mama – I heard you have a necklace, a really special one—'' Her voice tailed off doubtfully as Mama Seleliya's face changed – first from a smile to a look of shock, then a frown.

''Who told you about this?'' she demanded sharply. A couple of conversations nearby stopped suddenly, and a few heads turned.

Bilandu swallowed nervously – and it wasn't entirely feigned. She stammered, ''I – I spent a day at the Na – Nashivaar estate not long ago, and one of the Baba's slaves told me. I'm sorry Mama, I don't remember the girl's name.''

She looked as apprehensive as she felt, and Mama Seleliya allowed the moment to stretch out, regarding her with the same frown, that slowly turned back into a smile before eventually she laughed. One or two of the people who had stopped talking also laughed little nervous giggles.

Conversations resumed, and Mama Seleliya patted Sai's leg reassuringly as she shook her own head and smiled kindly. ''Ah, Bitray – of course! You know, if you had said any other name I probably would have had you killed and thrown into the harbour—'' Sai managed to smile back weakly as Mama Seleliya went on just as lightly, ''—but if you heard at Bitray's place, well – that, I can believe. Though I shall have to have a word with him about the discretion of his slaves.''

As Mama Seleliya shook her head and made disapproving noises, Bilandu took several deep breaths as innocuously as she could, to still her fluttering heart without letting relief show too much. She reached for her drink and actually this time sipped a little, allowing the burning, herbal flavour to focus her mind and taking the opportunity to look away from Mama Seleliya.

Mama was all smiles again now, however, and she leaned back to Sai and whispered, ''Later, Bilandu – I'll show it to you, too. I'm sure you'll appreciate it just as much as Bitray did.''

Bilandu turned, somehow managing a pretty good representation of delight as she took Mama Seleliya's hand in both of hers and excitedly half-whispered back, ''Mama, that would be lovely!''

The night went on as such things tended to, gradually slowing and quieting. Bilandu performed once more, slower and more sentimentally than the first time but still with enough power to re-ignite the atmosphere. However, at a certain point people began coming to thank Mama Seleliya for a wonderful night, and politely departing. The dancers and most of the musicians left as the sun was rising, and almost all the remaining guests left around the same time too; the end of the party. The few people who stayed on came together into the main living room, and drew closer. Mama Seleliya had one of her slaves light a fire in the huge hearth.

''Make yourselves comfortable!'' she called as she swanned out. ''I'll be back in just a minute!''

Bilandu took a place on a cushion off to one side, beginning to feel a little self-conscious now that she was the only dancer left. The other guests were all expensively dressed and clearly considered themselves the best people there could ever be; she had simply been the Mama's pet all night, so none of them were paying her a lot of attention. She didn't mind, but when two of the musicians who had stayed behind started up a gentle, meandering melody with a rolling three-five rhythm, she decided simply to stand and dance in front of the fire.

That's why I'm here – and it's what I'm best at!

So when Mama Seleliya arrived back, she found her friends mesmerised and the air around the fire slick with energy. Her claps of delight caused flashes in the aenimus, and as the musicians slowed and the dancer stopped with a flourish, the spontaneous applause and enthusiastic laughter which followed caused its own glimmering ripples to cascade across the room and into the fire. However badly they'd been flagging before, all those who'd seen in the dawn now felt refreshed and invigorated, and some people even began dancing themselves as the musicians picked up a jauntier, simpler tune.

Mama Seleliya approached the fire with a small round leather box held carefully in both hands, and a broad eager smile on her elegant dark face. She sat herself carefully on a large cushion and beckoned, ''Bilandu, sit with me!'' A couple of people on couches near the fire craned forward to see; Bilandu pulled a cushion towards the hearth and knelt on it, eyes intently on the box in Mama Seleliya's dark and brightly manicured hands.

Mama looked at each of face in turn, revelling briefly in the growing anticipation. The carefree flurry of dancers and musicians only a few paces away contrasted perfectly with this little pool of intense silence. Eventually she spoke, in a whisper. ''My friends – in this box is a myth given form – a fairytale come to life! Have any of you heard of the Voidstone?''

She looked about again, but a series of blank faces told her nobody had. She grinned with satisfaction and laughed, her eyes almost glowing with pleasure now. ''The Voidstone is just a stone – a plain black stone, to glance at it. But it has some – unusual properties. The first is, well—'' she flicked the box open just as she said this, ''—the way it looks.''

Every eye peered down into the box, and every breath seemed to gasp as one.

Inside the box, lying on a purple velvet bed, was a plain black chain of large, round links with a large black clasp in the shape of a human hand, holding a stone that was also black – but not just black. It was a kind of shimmering darkness that confused the eyes as they tried to focus – on something that looked rather like a lump of nothing at all; like an impossibly deep, dark, stone-shaped hole in the purple lining.

Bilandu reached a single finger out towards it and glanced at Mama Seleliya; she nodded and Bilandu tapped one long gleaming fingernail with two sharp clicks on the stone. She frowned, confused at its solidity – and poked it with the fleshy tip of her finger. It simply felt like a shiny, cold stone – clearly it was only the eyes that were confused by it. It was visible in the same notional way the dark spaces between the stars in the night sky were visible. She was entranced, and only recalled with surprise after several long seconds, that this was the thing she was supposed to take.

''It's beautiful isn't it?'' Mama was asking them.

Everyone agreed, awestruck, that it was, and one of her friends asked curiously, ''You said it was a fairytale, Soriya – but here it is, right? So what did you mean by fairytale?''

Mama Seleliya nodded. ''A long time ago when raw aenimus was something nobody knew much about about, a wealthy and skilled Mama from Jade City named Tamaralla had an idea that if she could transfer her own aenimus into an object of some kind, she could have herself then put into another body and essentially live forever. She supposedly spent years seeking the right material, and perfecting her alchemic skills, and her research and writings are what the Undying Connective consider their most sacred texts.'' She glanced around excitedly and the audience were all rapt as she went on, ''But she herself disappeared. Rumour has it she was the one who found or even made the Voidstone; in any case it disappeared with her and became no more than a story. But a few years ago a researcher of mine, travelling in Marathy, found a ruined building that had been completely burned out. Everything was in ashes, except for this—'' she paused, to open the box and lift the chain and stone out, placing the box carefully next to her. She held it up and the sense of wonder they all shared as it turned gently in the air was palpable. She lifted it slowly over her head and let it fall around her neck.

As soon as the stone landed on her chest, she vanished.

Everybody gasped, and the musicians and dancers all faltered, turning to see what had happened. Bilandu grinned, enchanted and astonished, not taking her eyes from where Mama Seleliya had been. The others were looking around, asking where she'd gone and calling out for her to stop it and behave herself. But Bilandu could see the shimmer of her shape, and knew she hadn't moved at all. When the Mama reappeared as suddenly as she'd vanished, still sitting just where she had been, she was staring Bilandu hard in the eyes, a mysterious and fascinated smile on her face.

Bilandu simply smiled back, eyes wide with intrigue. Mama's friends clapped and laughed, there were groans, and the music began again. She could see they really only considered it a diverting trick – but she knew straight away it was far more than that. She found herself asking without meaning to, ''But Mama – does it do what your story Mama wanted it for? Did she move to another body?''

Mama Seleliya grinned, apparently amused that Sai was still paying attention as her other friends began their own mindless speculations about the thing and how it probably worked. She shook her head. ''I don't know, Bilandu. I don't know if anybody knows. I doubt it, honestly. What makes you you, so to speak, isn't really in your aenimus – aenimus is just the stuff that keeps it all working. You – well – there are a lot of ideas about what you – or me, or any of us – what an I-that-is-I really is. Whatever it is it doesn't seem to last after we die, which is a pity—'' She sighed, then smiled. ''What the Voidstone does do though, is draw in aenimus – and it absorbs the aenimus let loose when someone dies, too, I've seen it do that, actually – but I don't believe it can revive someone who's already dead. It's never worked for me, anyway.'' She smiled ruefully and added, ''And I must confess I have tried.''

Bilandu was looking at her in unconcealed amazement now, shaking her head in disbelief. ''Sorry Mama, it's just – a lot to understand. This stone can draw in aenimus, hold it, and then let it out again?''

Soriya shook her head quickly, keen to correct the mistake. ''No, no – not let out. I don't know if it can do that – only draw in. And I'm sure it can't bring anyone back to life.''

Bilandu frowned and answered, ''What about – I mean, could it like, make a sick person well – or stop someone from dying, if they were close to death?''

Mama Seleliya thought for a moment. ''Honestly Bilandu – I don't know. But I'm not sure I'd like to try, I've a feeling that if someone was weak enough, the Voidstone might just drain what was left of their aenimus, rather than give them what's inside it. That's if there even is anything inside it—'' She thought for a moment, frowning, finally shaking her head decisively. ''No – I'm sure it would be a bad idea to bring this close to someone who was dying. I think it most likely would just kill them. It's tiring to wear it for long, see? It starts draining aenimus as soon as you put it on – a healthy person can bear it for a while, but I think if it were worn for long enough it could kill anybody.'' She shrugged and shook her head sombrely.

Bilandu was trying hard to stop herself from looking as desperate as she felt; she knew that right here was her opportunity. She gazed at the necklace, remembering Baba telling her she mustn't put it on —but here it is, I may not get a better chance! If not now, when? Still she hesitated, her instinct to obey overriding all else. Then a sudden thought exploded cold and obvious in her mind.

Baba told Sai not to wear it – but I'm Bilandu, here, now!

She couldn't help smiling as she took a deep breath to brace herself – and then before her rush of courage passed she asked in an awed whisper, ''Mama – may I try it on? I'd really like to know how it feels.''

Mama Seleliya thought for a moment before nodding and handing the necklace to Sai with a smile. ''Yes, do – you'll see what I mean about it draining. It's hard to explain, when you feel it you'll understand—'' She hooked the shiny black chain over Sai's bowed head and let the stone fall gently onto her bare chest.

As Sai vanished the world for her turned suddenly pale, washed through by light and the edges of everything indistinct and blurry. The people around her appeared as dark stick figures, vague people shapes saturated all over by brightness. She could feel the warmth from the fire on her skin and smell its smoke – though the flames were uncomfortably bright to look at – and as Mama Seleliya allowed her fingers to linger on Sai's body for a moment their gentle pressure didn't alter in tone or warmth. The flowery, perfumed smell of the room didn't change at all, and the sound of the ''Oooh!'' and clapping for the second showing of the trick was clear, undistorted and just the same as normal.

Whatever it was the stone was doing to her senses, the only one affected seemed to be her sight, and she turned her head, recognizing the shapes around her for what and where they were. Then, before she had time to think herself out of it, she jumped to her feet, held the stone against her and bounced herself in a somersault over the heads of the nearest shapes, then ran as fast as she could towards where a vague darkness showed the doorway.

Behind her she heard Mama Seleliya cry out, ''Bilandu! Stop!'' but she didn't stop. She took another deep breath and ran faster; if she'd been visible she was sure her legs would have been a blur. More cries came from behind but she was outside now and they sounded far away. She knew where the road was but she was blinded; she lifted the stone off her chest and everything returned to normal as she reappeared.

There it is! She judged the distance, counted, then let the stone fall and jumped the number of paces she'd planned, her last jump bringing her directly onto the steps of her wagon. She flew inside, slammed the door and banged her hand on the roof frantically. The wagon lurched then flew, the animals shrieking in surprise and pain as the driver's whip lashed them into action.

She didn't dare to look back, she just squeezed herself into a corner of the seat and rolled herself up into a ball, eyes clenched shut and hoping the driver would get her home soon.

* * *

They wound at random through the streets and roads of the Southside and it sounded as if they passed through the docks at least once; they changed animals once, and she heard two markets during the trip—

Or maybe the same market twice—

They went around more circles than the Southside even had – she knew there were only five but the wagon went around seven. It also sounded as if they traversed one of the Gate Squares at one point but she had no idea which one, or which way they went across it.

They went on rolling till well into the afternoon and in all that time she kept the necklace around her neck, not wanting to be glimpsed by anyone. Inside the dark of the wagon she found she could see quite well, but the windows were just blooms of light and she couldn't see anything outside. She was intrigued, though, by the way sounds and smells were unaffected, and as she got used to it found she still had a good enough idea of whereabouts they were.

As the wagon warmed up she began to feel quite light-headed, and reaching up to open the air doors was something of a struggle. She was finding it difficult to think straight and though she knew something was wrong it took her a long time to realise what it was.

The purse! She took the necklace off and felt immediate relief, as if a weight had been taken from inside. She could suddenly breathe properly – though she hadn't been aware till that point, that she couldn't. She fumbled with the hidden catch on the purse and slipped the strange, hard, blank stone into its velvety case, flicking the purse closed and letting it fall back down to where it sat on her hip.

Draining. She nodded in understanding. She felt fine now, and the effect was barely even a memory, but the stone had definitely tired and weakened her. She wondered how long she'd be able to wear it till she faded completely; then decided she didn't really want to find out.

Whatever this thing is, Baba's welcome to it!

The wagon finally pulled up on the back road behind Baba's house and he was there, looking as if he also hadn't slept. As she stumbled down the steps, he caught her and frowned quizzically, asking in a curt, urgent voice. ''You got it, Sai – yes? You didn't wear it? Nobody saw you?''

She unhooked the purse from her shoulder and handed it to him, exhausted and simply wanting to fall down where she stood. ''Got it, Baba. Got it.'' She dared not say any more.

Nor did he ask any more, he simply held the purse like a treasure for a long moment, looking between it and her as if he couldn't actually believe either of them were real. Then he grabbed her, pulled her to him roughly like a doll and laid a kiss on her face, then released her and just about ran off into the house.

Sai sighed and stamped off towards her own wash and bed, extremely relieved that she hadn't had to tell him she did wear it, and she was seen. She hoped his own precautions would prove enough, and she tried to assuage her shame over the reckless dash by persuading herself there could have been no better time to steal the thing than while she was wearing it and thus invisible. It seemed all too obvious to her, and she decided in any case that for what she'd just done, if there were consequences for her then probably the least of them would be Baba's anger at her rash disobedience.

* * *

But there were no consequences, and she didn't hear directly about it again; not even from Baba.

Days of gnawing worry turned into weeks of vague discomfort that eventually blended into the background as life went on as normal. Mama Seleliya even visited, complaining to Mama and Baba that someone had stolen something extremely valuable from her but refusing to say what it was. Even the slaves' gossip came up with no answer to that question – or to the question of who stole it – and eventually the whole story faded away, to Sai's immense relief.

Sai didn't forget, though.

Partly because she knew Baba must be feeling something about it – and yet he never spoke a word on the matter again, or even betrayed a hint that he knew about it. To everybody else this was of course unremarkable, but to Sai – who knew what she knew and knew he knew what she knew – it was unfathomable. She couldn't just dismiss it because she remembered how intensely he'd spoken about it, but now it was as if nothing had happened at all. There'd been no private mention, no knowing look when Mama Seleliya came calling, nothing – though she was certainly aware of being kept well out of the way.

Sai began to wonder if perhaps she'd just dreamed the whole thing, till she heard through estate gossip that Mama Seleliya had been found dead. Then, she began to worry all over again – but Baba Nashivaar still didn't seem bothered, and Sai decided that if he was staying calm and happy, she probably shouldn't be so concerned herself.

But she couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that there would be trouble in the end; even if Baba Nashivaar was exaggeratedly keen to pretend otherwise.

* * *

It was Earthday night – or in any case Fireday morning – two nights before Midsummer. Sai and three other body slaves were sitting opposite Baba and Mama in a slave-drawn wagon and the party was on its way back to the docks after a long day full of successful – from Mama's and Baba's points of view – visits to the estates of friends and relations in the Northside, bringing and receiving Midsummer gifts and tributes. They were returning home to host a three-day Midsummer event of their own to which they'd also been inviting guests.

The wagon pulled up at the dockside. There was a soft thud from the roof and the door banged open. Baba Nashivaar got out first, followed by Mama, Sai and the other three slaves after her.

Sai felt someone grab her from behind and clamp a wet cloth over her mouth and nose. Something smelled sour, and then everything spiralled in from the edges and went black. As she felt herself falling into the echoing darkness, a woman snapped, ''Him; her. Leave the others. Quick!'' but the voice blurred and reverberated sickly, buzzing and crashing and folding in on itself quicker, quicker, till nothing was left but piercing silence and softly yielding oblivion.

She didn't feel herself hit the ground.

[ Edited 03:53:37 PM 04/26/19 ]

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03:01:48 PM 04/27/19

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Note: This is all one scene again...

Present: Understanding

''After us, there is only Void'' Esuin paused, contemplating the words for a few seconds. The animal-drawn wagon shook and rumbled along the wide, flat road stones of Inner Parkway, and the clip-clop of the animals' hooves echoed between the tall windowed walls on each side of the deserted avenue. He began speaking again after a brief silence, ''That is what I said – and you'll hear it again, no doubt.''

Saiyali gave a sigh of frustration, ''Eh, I'm just not sure why it's so important. I mean – I understand that what the Sisterhood does is important and I understand why, but that thing about Void – it's not after us – it's everywhere, surely?''

Esuin nodded vigorously and replied ''True, very true. Not only after us, but before us – before any of us are born, what is there? And around us – we know because people die all the time—''

Saiyali laughed humourlessly, with a nod of agreement, ''Even inside us maybe – I mean, where do you go when you sleep, eh?''

Esuin couldn't help a grin as he gave a nod of approval and broke in, ''And in the sky! I mean – look between the stars up there – a lot more nothing than something, sure. There's no escape from it – whether someone turns up to help things along, or not.''

Saiyali sat up, half-turned and held out both hands in an extended shrug of vexation. ''So how can we, what, take credit for something we don't make or cause – that's all around, all the time? We can make that shadow, but so can other people I know who aren't Shadow Sisters – and anyway, it's not Void, it's just aenimus, made into shadow instead of light. It's still something—'' She frowned, and added doubtfully, ''—I hope that makes sense!''

Esuin's face looked strained as he tried to follow her logic, and eventually he just sighed. ''I think you're over-analysing, Sai. It's really just a – sort of – maxim, it's part of the myth, that's all. It's how the Sisterhood is seen—'' he wrinkled his long nose, ''We're seen as Gatekeepers.''

Saiyali nodded, frowning but beginning to see the point. ''Gatekeepers, that makes a strange kind of sense. Though obviously the gate leads nowhere—''

Esuin shrugged and snorted. ''That's why I don't like gatekeepers much – as you say, if there is a gate then it leads nowhere. I like to look at it the other way around – I see us as assistants. We help the process of leaving it all behind, we make it predictable and usually painless. Much less burdensome than what most people get at the end. We let people enjoy the journey, let's say''

Saiyali chuckled despite herself, but her frown showed less humour than confusion. She shook her head and commented, ''You make it sound like we're doing people a favour—''

As quick as a flash and dripping with cool frankness, Esuin replied, ''Aren't we, then? Think about it – for people who believe we're real, we are real, and we provide a kind of service they can't do without. Seriously – they'd shame themselves and ruin their names by doing what we do – but they would do it, if we didn't – because the way they live makes them need it to happen.'' He shrugged and the tone of his voice became more flippant. ''And then again, for the mass of everyday people who mostly think we're just a myth, we are a myth, and we just become a way of thinking about death that doesn't provoke—'' he mused, then found the word, ''—panic, basically. We're something they can relate to, emotionally – shadowy women who come in the night when you're old or sick, to take you away – like some shade of motherhood.''

He chuckled, though Saiyali didn't really see what was funny about any of it. She understood what he meant and she found nothing to laugh at; then it had been a long, heavy night and she wasn't really in the mood for humour. She sank back into her seat with a slight sigh.

Esuin looked away with a short, exhausted Hmm deep in his chest. He stared out of the window for a while before adding sombrely, ''Quite honestly, it's a lot less frightening than knowing that one day your heart or something else is simply going to stop, all by itself, just because it's worn out—'' He gave another sardonic chuckle. ''Nobody likes the simple unpainted truth too much. Old cultures made death into a kind of harvester who collected souls like fruit, I expect for the same reason – it's easier to process some creature which comes along to take you away somewhere, than the cold, blank truth that one day, you just die.''

Saiyali said nothing, just slid a little further down her seat and lifted her feet up onto the couch opposite, staring out of the window at the doorways and large, low ground-floor windows that from her point of view were sliding smoothly and persistently past. In a few hours they'd be teeming again with people eating, drinking, working and doing business; right now it looked and felt as if they too were asleep, like the people who populated them. No Void today, just another day of work and struggle, love and hate, food and drink and sunshine; Saiyali was already planning to take a long walk through the noisy, crowded city centre on her way home just to feel overwhelmed by the life of it all.

Esuin, on the other hand, was warming to his subject. He was sitting up now, having turned to Saiyali with enthusiasm. ''The point is that we revere that truth; the truth that inside and between everything is more nothing than we can even conceive; it's difficult, we struggle to avoid seeing nothing as something. You have to focus, meditate and visualise long and deep, to calmly feel that nothing as what it truly is – or again, as what it is not. That's where the devotion lies, and why we call what we do sacred. We deliver something into nothing and we do it knowingly and purposefully, in full awareness and great honour.''

The wagon was driving around Berry Circle and when she noticed, Saiyali sat up in apprehension – then sank back down with relief when she saw they weren't passing the Masnamaar estate. She could see its windows lit brightly, across the park that filled the Circle and slightly obscured by trees as the wagon rolled around the opposite side. She stretched out again in her seat, once more lifting her feet onto the opposite couch as Esuin sang softly, wistfully, now gazing at the sky from his own window. ''Many the stars may be, but the stars make less than darkness between—''

Saiyali turned sharply and smiled. ''I know that song! Many the stars may be, but the stars make less than the darkness between. Bright as the day appears, it's only so bright 'cause the sun is so near.''

Esuin nodded softly, but didn't look at her as he answered; rather his voice came slow and abstracted and flat, as if somewhere apart from him, ''I made that song.''

Saiyali turned her head sharply, a look of surprise on her face; he seemed about to cry but he suddenly blinked and turned fully towards her, smiling a little smile with an intense look in his eyes. ''You know, people used to believe that the stars were gods – a long, long time ago.'' He saw Saiyali's look of disbelief and nodded. ''It's true. They didn't understand the stars are just suns, like our own. They named them after animals, and imaginary dream-creatures – I'm sure you've heard about the animals some people believe they can see mapped out in stars?''

Saiyali nodded, ''My sister Eiv loved them – she used to think they were protecting her from up there.'' She stared distantly out of her window once more, across the park at the lights of the great towered palace, just about still visible now far off and behind. She scowled and added, ''They didn't protect her from Baba Masnamaar though.''

Esuin held out an open hand demonstratively. ''Exactly. And that's a hangover basically, from ancient, ancient days when people believed the stars were gods. They thought the stars controlled their lives, that they had immeasurable, unstoppable power over everything that ever happened. They used to do all kinds of arcane geometry across star maps, that they imagined could help them tell what was going to happen in the future. As if that were better than just making, I don't know, intelligent guesses, based on past experience, and context.'' He shrugged. ''Anyway, eventually people kind of realised that stars were just stars and didn't have magical power – but then, things got even more bizarre.''

Saiyali turned her head but didn't sit up. ''How so?''

Esuin shook his head. ''When people decided that the stars were after all just stars, they turned their attention to the space in between the stars. I don't know – I suppose they thought that if the stars couldn't be gods, then the gods they wanted to find must live between the stars, in the bits where nothing could be seen.''

Saiyali was frowning now. ''Sorry Uin – you mean they saw nothing and just – decided to make it into something, into gods? That doesn't make much sense.''

Esuin nodded, and the look in his eyes was almost humorous. ''No, it doesn't. And to be honest even in those far-off times there were already people who had come to terms with the fact that where there seemed to be nothing there probably was nothing. It's no great step from that insight, to a point where void itself comes to be revered – because it's where life begins and ends. Because it turns out, what doesn't change from age to age is that life is considered sacred—'' he shrugged, ''Just life itself, because of itself – whatever gods people believe in as well.'' He leaned back again into his seat and went on more quietly, reflectively, ''But before we knew about aenimus, people believed in all kinds of supernatural forces to explain what we now know are only physical and aenimal properties of life emerging out of itself.''

Saiyali had her head slightly to one side as she listened, and her slight frown and gentle nod indicated she was following. The driver was turning back from Berry Circle Parkway onto the main straight of Inner Parkway. A couple of wagons passed close by Esuin's side, and out of that window Saiyali saw another Ring Road running broadly away to her right, bisected by a line of trees and already carrying morning traffic. Even with the slowly receding line of shade trees, a lot more sky was visible over the wide boulevard that curved away eastwards, and it was already becoming blue as dawn broke. She yawned, and allowed her own aenimus to brighten with a sudden flash as the bubble of energy burst from inside her.

Esuin half-turned, yawning as a shadow burst from him in the same way. ''Contagious.'' he muttered, and Saiyali smiled and rubbed her eyes with the tips of her fingers.

When she released her face again it was creased with a doubtful frown. ''But we revere the Void anyway – I'm not talking about the Sisterhood now, I'm just talking about us, people who live here, everyone! We revere the Void; we name a day after it and we don't work and we put lights up to bring people home; it's still a special thing, with a special day. Isn't that the same?''

Esuin shook his head immediately. ''No, not at all. We revere the Void for itself, for its own not-ness. We don't make it an excuse for a holiday, and we certainly don't use it as a pretext for dreams of being reunited with those we miss.'' He snorted and shook his head. ''But that kind of distraction isn't a new game. Ancient people also used to turn nothing into something, call it some forbidden name, and revere that instead. As if the name were the sacred thing—'' Suddenly he laughed – with humour but a shade of bitterness too. ''Did you know, some people used to worship something they called Great Lord – you know, like Baba, basically—''

Saiyali burst out laughing. ''What? They imagined nothing was something – then called it Baba?''

She giggled at this for quite some time, and Esuin watched her – at first curiously, then with slight chuckles of his own and bursts of laughter, and finally he himself dissolved into uncontrollable fits of giggles. The two of them laughed wildly like a pair of oversized seabirds, honking and hooting and flashing with aenimus both light and dark. The wagon driver heard them and even he cracked a mirthful grin, high on his roof seat.

They were now turning into the semicircular avenue around Greenleaf Park, and Esuin, wiping tears from his eyes, asked, ''Sai, have you ever been to Holy City?''

Saiyali shook her head. ''I've – well, I've read about most famous places in the Empire but I've – never really ever left Obsidian City. I've been here – well, the Nashivaar estate, mostly – but in Obsidian city somewhere, all my life – since I came here, at least. Before that I don't remember much, so all my life, really. Why?''

He shrugged. ''Maybe you'll have a chance to travel now you've got freedom. You should.''

Saiyali quickly answered, ''I – I used to have a little Pocket Guide but – I lost it. There are a few places I've read about that I would like to see, some day. Holy City, maybe – I know it's beautiful, at least the Pocket Guide said it is.''

Esuin tossed his head back with eyes wide. ''It is – but that's not why I mentioned it. Did your guide book talk about the Testing, or maybe the Proving?''

Saiyali thought for a moment and then nodded affirmatively. ''It mentioned the Proving, yes – but only about where it happened and that some artifacts from it are still there now. It didn't talk about what it was exactly.''

Esuin made a thoughtful Hmm, and then sat up, rubbing his eyes again with the heels of both hands, and yawning.

Out of his window, across the road, Saiyali noticed a wide yard surrounded by a tall white-painted wooden fence, where a corner of one building had at some time been removed. At the back of the yard was a long kitchen, steaming in the cool morning air as it prepared to open; over the white gate at the front of the yard hung a large sign which read DAWN TILL DUSK DINER in letters that faded from red and orange through yellow and green to blue and purple, across the length of the words. In the yard between the gate and the kitchen, under a large white canvas sheet supported centrally by a tall wooden frame, tables and cushions were being arranged by smartly colourful staff. Delicious breakfast scents floated across from the windows, and Saiyali made a mental note to come and eat here when they'd finished the morning's business.

''The Proving – well—'' Esuin had found new energy from somewhere, and he was in full storytelling mood now. ''At the time it actually happened, it was called the Testing, and it was – well, it was conceived to avoid a war. But it caused something worse – and then in the long-run it's probably the main reason the Empire came to exist at all.''

They turned at the corner onto the 6th Ring Road, and the smells from the kitchen began to fade as they rolled down the Boulevard into the wind from the harbour. Saiyali focussed more easily on Esuin, now her mind wasn't distracted by hunger. ''Oh?''

He nodded, not seeing any difference. ''Yes, definitely. I don't know what you know about ancient history—''

''Not much,'' interjected Saiyali with a snort, ''all I've ever really been told is what to do—''

''Well,'' Esuin grinned and barely missed a beat as he went on, ''In the days before the Empire there were lots of tribes and little countries all fighting each other for control of land and sea and resources. Some of the tribes had gods – aspects of nature, or ancestors – but a lot of people worshipped that god I mentioned, that they called Great Lord—'' Saiyali shook her head and chuckled again at this. ''—and the main temple at Holy City, in those days it was called Lamka, was pretty much dedicated to Great Lord. Even though there were other shrines and temples there, the Grand Shrine was where people from every tribe and land would gather, who professed belief in Great Lord. Thousands of people came to dedicate and meditate every day, from all over the place, and according to the books there were serious moves towards building an empire in the name of Great Lord.''

Saiyali looked amazed and fascinated, and didn't say a word as Esuin went on, ''The problem was though, that each time the main tribes came close to some agreement, the whole thing would fall to pieces because there just weren't enough people who really believed in Great Lord. And no matter what threats, coercions, promises and persuasions were used to recruit believers, it was clear that a large minority simply never would believe – either because they wanted some proof, or because they had traditional gods of their own which they weren't happy to give up. Some of them even wanted their gods to be equally represented at the Grand Shrine, but the leaders devoted to Great Lord wouldn't allow it, they called it blasphemy, and threatened war if ever such a thing were allowed.''

Saiyali puffed out her cheeks and blew a little breath through them, widening her eyes and shaking her head.

''Indeed,'' agreed Esuin, ''it was an endless source of friction and strife – worse than the question of who taxed the Breadlands, who owned Gold City's banks, or who controlled the mouth of the Bay of Jewels. In the end, a plan was conceived by a Grand Shrine counsel – all the most senior clerics, with leading artists and thinkers of the time. A plan to find out once and for all whether Great Lord was
real – whether any gods were really real.

''Word was sent out across all the lands, to every tribe and country, requesting that all the most devoted followers of any god – and especially of Great Lord – should come to the Holy City to prove their gods were real, and that way show they should be allowed to have their own dedication at the Grand Shrine.''

Saiyali was leaning forward now, quite entranced by Esuin's storytelling. Outside her window the 6th Ring road continued to trundle smoothly by, more and more people were emerging outdoors and the sky was paling noticeably. New food smells drifted across the breeze and Saiyali's stomach gurgled; she thought she might even have to eat something before she walked to DAWN TILL DUSK for actual breakfast. Esuin didn't notice the gurgle, he was even more entranced by his story than Saiyali was.

''Thousands came, from north, south, east and west – everywhere, they even say people came across the high desert and across the sea. A white stone sculpture was placed in one of the gardens not far from the Great Shrine – a long, narrow cone taller than a person. The cone was buried in the ground point down, so its flat top was at waist height – but the flat top wasn't flat – it was hollowed into a perfect half-ball hole. The hole was empty – and then near the pedestal, a couple of paces away on the ground, was put a large, perfectly round white stone – exactly the right size to fit perfectly into the hole on the flat end of the cone.'' He chuckled with genuine amusement. ''I say was you know, but it's still there in the same place, near the Grand Shrine. If you go there you can see it – them; the bowl and the ball.''

Saiyali had to bite her lip not to speak, but he didn't pause, he was fully in his stride, gesticulating as he brought himself back onto his point. ''Anyway, the Testing! So it was a simple idea, ridiculously simple. There was only one rule – by the power of prayer alone, anyone could move the ball into the bowl. Praying to any god, goddess, spirit or ancestor was allowed, and as many people could chant, pray, sing, dance and scream as much as they wanted, in groups as large as they wanted. Sacrifices were allowed. Anything which fit into the doctrine of any faith was allowed. Only one thing was not permitted: nobody was allowed to physically touch either the ball or the bowl.''

Saiyali raised a curious brow and said nothing as Esuin continued. He was almost performing it now, and he was doing so well that she began to suspect he had in fact performed it at some point.
''For days, they say, there was chaos as individuals and groups did everything they could to make their god put the ball into the bowl. Some groups refused to participate, tried to disrupt things, claimed tricks were beneath dignity, or that their god would not be commanded. But there were so many people getting involved that they couldn't stop it; there were thousands of people who were sure they could prove their god was real, despite what some community leaders said.''

His gestures were becoming larger, sweeping, and his eyes were glimmering red with excitement. ''But slowly, all the chanting and praying just turned into wailing and pleading. As the hours and days wore on, people began asking why no gods would show themselves. Some followers of Great Lord claimed He was only waiting to act, to test their faith, but gradually, more and more people became more and more desperate. More sacrifices – more frequent – more brutal; pyres were built, wailing pitched up into screams; some people started mortifying their own bodies with blades or whips or fire. A few more overwrought even killed themselves, with tragic cries of devotion to whatever they believed they were about to meet.''

Saiyali was shaking her head in disbelief, and Esuin nodded in response, waving his hands palms down as if he could somehow dismiss the absurdity of it all. ''Everything slowly broke down into complete, bloody chaos – and still no gods appeared! Not to stop it – not even just to put the ball in the bowl. Nothing.''

Saiyali shrugged, as her amazement sapped any other response. She glanced over Esuin's shoulder as the driver yelled at the animals and the wagon heaved left, and she saw a road sign on the corner that read Whiteflowers Ln. Shops were by now beginning to open and the brightening air was definitely warming up; the sun was not yet in the sky but at this time of year the day started heating noticeably before sunrise.

Esuin in turn squinted out of the window behind Saiyali. He gave a curt, satisfied nod as he registered where they were, and went on fluently, ''Well – the source accounts – they're confused about what happened. It is generally accepted that a small group tried to take advantage of the chaos in order to pick up the ball and put it in the bowl themselves; what nobody agrees on is which sect they were from, or at exactly what point it happened. In any case, the ball was – and is—'' he chuckled ''—it's far too heavy for one or even three people to pick up, and the sources do agree that the people trying to do so were seen and killed on the spot.''

Saiyali gasped a sharp intake of breath, and her eyes widened fearfully. ''Yes – I can see how that might not have gone down too well.''

Esuin just nodded gently as he went on, ''No, and it didn't. Essentially the whole situation descended into, well – again, all the sources agree there was a bloodbath. Groups of believers killed each other, non-believers killed believers and vice-versa, alliances broke and communities of faith dissolved in a collective outpouring of pent-up rage. Tribal and sectarian rivalries exploded in violence and in less than a day, almost everybody who was involved in the Testing was dead or dying.'' He paused, dramatically, and Saiyali was certain he'd told this before. Just as she was about to ask – and? – he added, almost in a whisper but without even a hint of a smile, ''And no gods came. Not one. No gods took revenge, no gods came to help. Nobody was punished, nobody was rewarded. Just a lot of people died.'' He shook his head sadly. ''And the ball stayed on the ground, the whole time; it never moved.''

Saiyali shook her head as well, and asked, ''And you say the ball and the bowl are still there?''

''Yes – still there, and still no gods have come to put the ball in the bowl.'' He chuckled. ''They're maintained by some of the Grand Shrine clerics, as a kind of shrine to false belief. The real irony of the Proving, though, is that while it did more or less prove that people's gods weren't real, it showed that something else was real – aenimus. The books say there were so many dead around the Grand Shrine that all the aenimus couldn't dissipate and it simply hung there and began glowing, and visibly flowing across the ground and rising into the sky.''

Saiyali's eyes widened in surprise. ''Didn't people know about aenimus before that then?''

Esuin shook his head. ''In Marathy or Marash, maybe – but not here. The people here had never experienced aenimus as more than a crazy idea, most people thought it was just supernatural rubbish. Then for a while, some people did think aenimus was what they used to call a soul. But over time we've found out it's actually just a kind of essence, something from the body and mind, and that everybody's is basically the same. The only difference is how much of it someone can keep inside them, and whether they can control it or not – because obviously, not everyone can.'' He smiled a slightly smug smile.

Saiyali frowned uncertainly. ''Actually, in Marathy, I think everyone can – it's different here because only Mamas and Babas and clerics are really meant to do anything with aenimus.'' She thought for a moment longer, just as the wagon turned smoothly again to the right. They were coming onto the 4th Ring road now, and she knew they were close to their destination. She held up a finger as something occurred to her. ''So, are there still people around anywhere who do believe in gods? Even now?''

Esuin shrugged and snorted sarcastically. ''Oh probably. People seem to be able to believe almost anything, no matter how ridiculous it is, if they think they get something out of it. I guess people who believe in gods think it makes them better than people who don't; being loved by a god is quite a feat of self-perception. I suppose they also think there's something waiting for them after they die.'' He shrugged. ''But there can't be many these days, not so long after the Proving. I think most of the true believers that did exist were almost all dead a generation or two afterwards; the whole Testing produced a kind of end-days mania and the sources say thousands who didn't die during the original fighting killed themselves not long afterwards from despair, disillusionment, or sheer stubbornness. There were also a few vicious sectarian wars but they puttered out as the devoutest killed themselves and the less dedicated lost interest.''

He smiled sardonically, glanced out of his window and knocked hard on the ceiling. The wagon heaved to a stop, and Esuin flung the heavy door open with a single graceful push, still talking. ''Perhaps one day, one or another of the ancient gods will feel inclined to come to us and give us some feedback on what happened at the Proving, and we can all have another think about things.''

He placed his foot carefully onto the step that folded out from the wagon's underside as the door opened, and reached up to hand the driver a large coin.

The driver mumbled, ''Thank y', Baba'' and dug into his side-pack for a coin as Saiyali also stepped down into the road.

But Esuin was squinting in the brightly rising sunshine, shaking his head. ''Not a Baba, friend – just call me Uin. And thank you for a smooth quiet ride. Keep the change.''

Nobody was at the shrine, so they went to eat at a nearby Breakfast Kitchen nearby. It was cheap, and certainly didn't smell as as delightful as the Dawn Till Dusk had – but Saiyali thought it was the best breakfast she'd ever eaten.

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12:19:22 PM 04/28/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
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[A Page Found and Kept]

Where to Eat

Sustenance for nothing is the goal of every budget traveller, but if you expect to be able to eat for free in Obsidian City, you're in for a rude awakening. As the old saying goes, Nothing is free in Obsidian City – when it comes to food, you should live by this.

It's not that it's impossible to eat for free there – you can beg (thousands do every day and survive) or you can steal (especially if you're travelling the Obsidian Garden where there are farms and holdings growing almost everything you could dream of picking) but be aware both are crimes in the city (of course stealing is a crime everywhere!) and we recommend you arrive with money or something to trade, or have friends or family who'll take care of you during your stay. Also bear in mind that Obsidian City's Laws state that someone ejected from the city for any reason at all may not return within a year, so be careful if you do decide you absolutely can't afford to pay for what you eat.

Cheap, on the other hand – no problem. There is literally nowhere in the whole Empire better for eating cheaply. Just be careful what you buy – many low-end traders will sell half-rotten fruit and vegetables as juices, bread made from as much wood-dust as flour (which is edible but gives terrible wind) and almost any kind of meat gathered from the city's backstreets as – well, whatever you want it to be called. As a rule of thumb, the weaker your purse, the stronger your guts will need to be.

The best area in the city for eating on a budget is of course the Docklands. Here, food comes in from ports along the coast as well as from Marathy and elsewhere. It's as fresh as produce gets in the city, and some of the Kitchens of the 31st and 32nd Ring Roads are famous far beyond the city.

We recommend Mama Delekta's, at the junction of West 32nd and Outer Park Avenue. Mama Delekta herself died some years ago but the Kitchen was so well-loved it survived her passing to become better even than she had made it. Their menu's prices are always based on the market prices of the day and can vary enormously, so have a stroll around the Markets before you visit, to get an idea of what will be cheapest.

Likewise we recommend FishyFishy at the junction of East 31st and Flowers Neck Street. It might be obvious from the name that what they serve is – well, fish. But what most people don't expect when they first visit is how many kinds of fish and seafood they serve; if it lives in the sea, FishyFishy will cook it and sell it. They have a set menu each day, but if you have the coin you can just go in and ask for what you'd like, and how you'd like it cooked, and they'll prepare it right in front of you.

In the Southside, one of the best (and cheapest) places to eat is just inside the New South Gate – Aarisha. The Kitchen's four head chefs are co-owners of a large farming development several leagues outside the city gate and almost all their produce comes from there, so their prices can be surprisingly low. They have a reputation for homely cuisine always based on what's in season.

In the mid-range, the place which has to be mentioned first is that Obsidian City institution, the Dawn Till Dusk Diner, at East 6th and Greenleaf Park Circle. To say they specialize in breakfasts would be doing them a disservice because although they are famous for their breakfasts, the rest of their menu is quite exquisite. If you have a reasonable budget to spend on your meal, you must not miss the Dawn till Dusk.

Another Kitchen that no coin-carrying visitor to the City of Millions should even dream of missing is another Southside highlight – the Crown of Grill. On the perimeter of the Broken Market, it's near to where the Farmers Gate Way runs into the Broken Market Circle; however, they do not permit their actual address to be left in print; they say that when you arrive in the Broken Market you can easily smell them out; and who are we to argue?

Back in the Northside, the Welcome! Kitchen at the North Coast Gate is well worth anyone's time – more for the company than for the food, though their chefs are no amateurs. They sell almost anything anybody might want, and although it's a little pricey for what you get, what you're really paying for at Welcome! is the fantastic array of people you can bump into. The only better location in the whole city to meet people from so many different places, is the Central Transport Hall on Central Avenue South. We recommend Welcome!'s fried breads; we'll say no more than that.

At the top end of the market, Obsidian City also has no shortage of potential dining spots. Most of the Kitchens around any of the main Circles will charge you absurd amounts of money for (admittedly excellent) food and drink served by happy and beautiful serving staff – but places like these are for the kinds of people who do not pay attention to the cost of things.

If you're reading this entry then we might humbly venture to guess that you do pay attention to such matters. Therefore, If you truly wish to spend an entire day's wages on a single meal, we can make some recommendations that will, we hope, ensure you get something worth the frankly outrageous price you may find yourself--

[Page Ends]

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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12:59:01 PM 04/28/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 490
Past: Home is...

Sound returned first.

A regular drip – drip from some vaguely echoing half-distance drew closer and eventually squeaking and snuffling sounds also appeared. Unfamiliar sounds were soon matched by a strange, damp and musty smell. And with that, Sai became aware of herself – and suddenly too, the fact she was somewhere she shouldn't be. This isn't my bed – it's not even at home— Then she felt cold, and she realized she was already shivering.

She opened her eyes and tried to sit, carefully; she was still dressed in her insubstantial evening clothes, and nothing was broken or burned. Her left hip, knee and arm were sore as if she'd fallen on them – and as she thought of that she remembered being grabbed, and falling but not landing, and ran her right hand over the hurting bits to make sure nothing was seriously damaged.

She checked her hand. No blood; good. She couldn't feel any pain anywhere else and though her head was a little fuzzy, it didn't ache. The room seemed distorted though, and even when she closed one eye, it didn't straighten. She frowned, squinting and trying her best to look around and think rather than just lie back down and hope to wake up somewhere else.

It was a stone room which might have been almost any room in the city – the same grey with the same lines, and a door arch the same pointed shape as they always were. But it was all at a strange angle – and as she squinted, she discovered with relief that it really was all at an angle and there was nothing wrong with her eyes. The floor was wooden, and flat so that the wall to her right was shorter than the wall to her left, and the ceiling slanted down there. It was as if the entire building was tipped to one side.

She shook her head, failing to understand. Then she saw there was no door.

No bars either. She stood up as soon as she saw this, and stepped lightly across the room. She was nearly at the doorway when some sense told her not to go through, and she stopped, eyes narrowed, trying to work out what was bothering her.

She glanced about and saw a wooden chair by the short wall and a tall wooden cabinet against the straight wall, at the foot of the bed she'd been on. Next to the tall wall stood a wooden table with two more wooden chairs, and a candle in a holder. She frowned. Someone's bedroom?

She turned back to the doorway and reached a hand through it – or nearly did. As soon as her hand got most of the way out of the door it was bounced back sharply by a wall of invisible energy. She stifled a scream of frustration as it rang loudly, and concentric circles of light bounced back and forth from the point where she had touched it. Gasping bitterly with disappointment and annoyance, she backed up to the bed to sit and wait for the inevitable response.

But nobody came, and she soon noticed how cold she was. On a whim she decided to look in the cabinet – which turned out to be a wardrobe, and to her extreme gratitude it did indeed contain a selection of clothes. She chose the warmest-looking thing, a shapeless brown woollen robe with a large hood. She pulled the hood up gratefully as she sat back on the bed, then lay back down, snuggling into the thick and pleasantly clean wool.

Now that she felt warmer, she began to be annoyed by the ringing that didn't seem to fade at all. It was a high-pitched, monotonous sound and even though it wasn't especially loud, it gradually became deafeningly piercing. Her head, whose fuzziness was only being thickened by the resonance of the noise, felt like it was about to burst – and she was on the verge of screaming for someone to please make it stop, when to her surprise, it stopped.

She blinked, and sat up in disbelief. She clapped her hands together and made a brief humming noise to make sure it wasn't her ears that had stopped, smiling with relief when she heard herself. She was about to lie back down when she heard footsteps coming down the passage outside the doorway. She stood, hesitantly, and took a couple of deep breaths, filling herself with energy for whatever was coming, and calming the surge of fear which burst in her chest. She wasn't ready—

I'm ready! Another deep breath.

She was almost disappointed when it turned out to be a slender, tired-looking woman, alone and carrying nothing more threatening than a small dark wooden box carefully in both hands. The woman didn't even pause at the door, she simply walked in – no ringing – and gave Sai a strange, familiar smile before setting the chest down on the table and sitting herself down on one of the chairs. She beckoned to Sai to sit too and Sai, too stunned by this unexpected turn of events to do anything else, dropped herself back onto the bed.

She was staring dumbstruck at the woman, caught uncomfortably between recognition and ignorance as she looked into green eyes and a frank, lined face as Marathy as her own. She had short, curly black hair and was wearing a dark blue leather suit and black leather boots. She smelled of leather and blood and though Sai for some reason felt she should, she couldn't place her at all.

The woman stared knowingly back for a moment before smiling and shaking her head. ''You don't remember me, do you – Saiyali?''

Sai's jaw dropped open and she shook her her head. She managed to recover herself just enough to stutter, ''How – How do you kn – know my name? Nobody calls me th – that!''

The woman smiled. ''You told me it yourself. We were, let's see – we were sitting on the ground, next to a large wagon, and we were eating, ah I don't remember. Some slavers' filth, sure.'' She raised a curious brow. ''D'you remember now? Saiyali?''

On hearing her full name again, Sai gasped, almost sobbing, and shook her head. ''Please – whoever you are – stop it. Don't call me that, I hate it. I'm Sai, alright?'' She looked desperate and hurt, and the woman sighed but nodded.

She went on immediately, but gently. ''Then maybe you remember what I told you – Run and Hide. I can see y' didn't take my advice, hmm?''

Suddenly, Sai's jaw dropped again and she started gesturing, clenching her fingers, trying to bid the woman's name come to mind. It wouldn't. ''I – I –'' was as far as she got, before giving up and pleading, ''Please tell me. I don't remember. But I believe you – I do remember hearing that but I don't remember when—'' she tailed off reluctantly, expectantly.

The woman stared a moment longer before sighing and nodding her head. ''I wanted you t' remember for yourself, but if you say you believe me that'll have to do. My name is Janaa, and we met in a slaver's wagon in Marathy, and you must have been – thirteen? Fourteen? You were terrified and – I don't think I helped much. For what it's worth, I'm sorry f' that. But honestly, nothing I could have said would've helped, would it?''

Sai was nodding with acceptance. Her own memory of anything from before Nashivaar was sketchy and painful, she'd tried her best to forget so much over the years in order to deal with the shame and despair. But what this woman was saying rang true - Anyway, it won't help to say she's wrong.

But she was speaking again. ''I can tell you now, Saiy— Sai – if I didn't recognize you then you wouldn't be here. You'd be – well, no matter. I hope it won't come to that, actually.''

She appeared genuinely hurt, and Sai shrugged apologetically. ''I'm sorry – Janaa. I don't remember a lot from – well, before I got to the Nashivaar place. But I'm – grateful – that you – didn't––'' She tailed off, frowned and looked at Janaa seriously. ''You would have killed me? Is that what you mean? Why?'' The question was asked imploringly.

Janaa shrugged. ''You stole – and you wore – something you shouldn't even know about, and something we've been seeking for years – since it was stolen from us, in fact.''

Sai gave a knowing nod and interjected sullenly, ''The Voidstone.''

Janaa nodded affirmatively. ''We found out Soriya Seleliya had it when she started asking around for it, as if it had been stolen from her. It wasn't hard to discover where it had gone – your Baba Bitray made sure someone like Seleliya couldn't find out what he'd done. But us? Me? I find out about all kinds of villainy.'' She smiled, but Sai could see a coldness as she added, ''Actually I've been an admirer of Nashivaari villainy for some time now, but I didn't know you were the Sai I was hearing about—'' She shrugged. ''As I say – it's lucky for you that you are or you'd be – with him now.''

Sai looked up sharply. ''With him? Where is he? Where am I?'' She was suddenly scared, sensing something dreadful, glancing out of the doorway expecting to hear his familiar laugh or to see him bowling arrogantly around the corner of the corridor.

Janaa opened the little chest on the table, and coughed gently to attract Sai's attention from her grievous imaginings. Sai looked over to her, blinking, and Janaa said gently. ''Where you are – that'll need to remain unknown just now – but I can assure you you're not in any danger. I'm not intent on harming you at all. Will that do, for now?''

Sai nodded, knowing it would have to do, however wrong this all felt. She raised her hands in an entreating gesture which matched the helpless look in her eyes, and shrugged.

Janaa nodded, held up her own hands placatingly and went on, ''As for where your Baba is—'' She nodded her head towards the open chest, looking inside pointedly.

Sai stood and crossed shakily to the table while still looking at Janaa. When she was close enough to see into the box, Janaa nodded her head to the side again and Sai looked down.

In the box lay a heart. It was a the same shape as her clenched fist, but bigger; dark red with creamy patches. Wide, glistening tubes sticking from one end showed it had been cut out neatly, and recently. It lay on a disc of black glass, right in the middle of the box.

It looked unreal, and Sai simply stared blankly at it as if it were a small animal or a piece of fruit or a stone or anything, except her Baba's heart.

Janaa broke the moment as she spoke, hard and cold. ''That's the heart of the man who owned you, Sai. Baba Bitray Nashivaar and all his other names, is dead. That's his heart. I'm sorry you can't see the rest of him just now, but perhaps you will, soon. I hope y' believe me, anyway – I have no reason to lie, and it's certainly no joke '' She smiled flatly, as if the notion of joking was itself absurd.

Sai nodded, sighing, and went on gazing at the heart; a series of sad expressions crossed her face and her eyes even filled with tears – though none fell. Finally, she looked up at Janaa and smiled a little smile. ''Good. I mean, thank you. I just—'' She faltered.

Janaa frowned, almost snorting an ironic laugh. ''I must say I thought you'd be a bit happier than this, I'll be honest—'' she tailed off, tilting her head and raising her brow questioningly in an effort to prompt some response.

Sai shrugged and squinted as she thought abut this, and eventually she gave another slow nod. ''So did I, I suppose, I kind of feel the same myself. And now it's here – it's just – such a – an anticlimax. All the years, the fear, ech, the hate! All my saving up and doing my best and my promises to myself that I would buy myself free, and now – well, there it is, his heart. It's – smaller than I expected. I suppose—'' She sighed, partly out of relief, but she was honest enough to admit there really was a certain disappointment.

She went on, glancing to Janaa as she added, ''I suppose that I forgot, killing him was a possibility. For me, it wasn't. Maybe I envy you, that for you it was. For you, he's just some Baba. For me—'' She knew she wouldn't be able to find the words to sum up Baba Nashivaar, and she didn't try. But finally she found some words, in the form of a question. ''Why did you kill him?''

Janaa regarded her thoughtfully, not sure how much more to tell, and carefully considering her next words. ''We couldn't let him keep it. The Voidstone. Once we knew where it was, we had to get it
back. And having stolen it, he had to die.''

She was quite matter-of-fact, and Sai nodded as if what she said made sense, but the look on her face told Janaa it was not enough, and finally, she spoke her main doubt out loud – one single syllable, rising dramatically in apprehension. ''We?''

Janaa sighed resignedly. ''We, yes. We are an ancient and noble sisterhood. The Ancient and Noble Sisterhood, in fact. Of Shadows.''

Sai blinked and almost recoiled.

Janaa nodded, satisfied. ''You're familiar with the name, then.''

Sai nodded and asked fearfully, ''The Sha – Shadow Sisters?''

Janaa answered firmly. ''Yes, Sai. The Shadow Sisters.'' She raised a brow sympathetically.

Sai was trying to order her mind. She'd heard about the Sisterhood of Shadows and knew what anybody knew, which was to say myth, legend and no fact. Among the Mamas and Babas of the Nashivaari social circles, everybody knew or knew about someone who had died mysteriously, and though nobody would ever say out loud that the Shadow Sisters were real, they were certainly feared as if they were. The taboo against talking about them – even in jest or as a threat – had always led Sai suspect they might be real. She'd often hoped they were, that someone was capable of bringing the Mamas and Babas down in some way.

She nodded and smiled and felt a certain satisfaction, that tempered her fear and shock a little. She took a moment to consider this new information, then with a smile of realisation she asked, ''So – the Voidstone, it belongs to your Sisterhood – and what about Mama Seleliya?'' Sai asked, adding ''I heard she died. Was that you as well?''

Janaa nodded affirmatively. ''She had a – family connection to the stone. Ancestral, let's say. She felt – entitled to own it and, well, when it became known that she'd been the one hiding it all these years there was a lot of – anger, towards her. A few others who knew more than they should are also gone; others – persuaded. The Voidstone is safe now, and in the right hands—'' She paused, and waited till Sai was opening her mouth to ask another question before adding, almost casually, ''—so that really only leaves – you.''

Sai's half-open mouth closed instantly, and her blood froze. Now we come to it. She took a deep breath before speaking as calmly as her churning guts would allow, ''What – about me – Janaa?''

Janaa regarded her for a long moment before answering. ''Unusually, you get to choose what happens to you next. You also know more than we're happy about – but I can offer you a choice because in the end you were only doing what you were commanded to do. So, you may choose to die in honour of your Baba whose commands you were performing – or if you prefer, you may choose to leave the Empire and return home to Marathy.''

She paused to let those choices sink in, then added ''Or, you may undergo a Choosing, and enter into the Sisterhood. If you wish.'' The wide-eyed and intent look on her face showed she clearly expected this third choice to shock. She was not disappointed – Sai's jaw dropped and she mouthed nothing for a few moments, just blinking. Janaa didn't even try to suppress a smile of pleasure.

Finally though. Sai found words. ''Mama – Janaa! I can't be – that! I – I mean – I'm honoured but – I – that's not me – I'm just—'' she tailed off, not sure what else to say.

Janaa nodded, visibly disappointed. ''Well I had to ask, and I'm not completely surprised. But in that case I won't insult you by pretending you still have a choice. You'll have to leave and never come back, do you understand?''

Sai nodded gladly. ''That absolutely suits me f—'' then was struck by a sudden thought. ''But Mama Janaa—''

Janaa interupted her. ''Not Mama – just Janaa.'' she smiled at Sai's reluctant nod and muttered under her breath, ''They really did a job on you, ah?''

Sai was already continuing though, ''Janaa – how am I supposed to get home? Without a Freedom Paper I'll just be arrested as a runaway if I try and board anything. How can I go home when I can't get onto a ship?''

Janaa smiled with amusement. ''Sai, after what I've told you, do you really think I couldn't arrange a ship for you, or a forged freedom paper? I could have you taken on your own ship!'' She laughed briefly. ''But no – you'll have a real Freedom Paper, from Mama Saliki Nashivaar – and I suspect, a generous gift to take with you.''

Sai was once again reduced to stuttering and half-words and this time, Janaa took up her train of thought for her. ''You're wondering why in all the seas and skies Mama Nashivaar is going to free you, aren't you?''

Sai nodded and managed to finish the thought herself. ''I've saved a lot over the years, Janaa – but not enough to buy myself. Not nearly. Why is she going to let me go?''

Janaa grinned with the glee of a punchline as she explained, ''Because Sai, you're going to offer her the most valuable thing in the world in exchange for yourself.'' She looked pointedly at the box on the table, then back to Sai with a suddenly serious expression. ''You're going to be the one who brings her beloved Baba's heart back to her.''

* * *

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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05:08:12 PM 04/29/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 490
Past: Home is... [pt2, 3]

As Sai emerged into the night air, she had the sense of emerging at the top of a hill. The wind was almost nothing and the dark sea all around was like a vast silent empty space.

Quite far to her left – a lot further than she could possibly have thrown a stone – began the main Northside docks at their river end – she could see the Nashivaar pontoon over there, lit with torches. Torches and harbourside lights burned for as far as she could see, curving off into the night as she turned more to her left. In the dark of the harbour water she could see silhouettes and oddly-illuminated parts of great ships. Lights moved here and there, some steady and some flashing, and hints of echoing voices drifted on the tiniest lick of a breeze.

Finally there was a wide dark patch where the harbour opened into the ocean, the vastness of the night sky scattered with stars all the way to the invisible horizon. Gleaming between the sparkling black sky and the still dark water she could see the Central Point Light Tower, its bright, pale blue light sending paths of light back across the smooth, dark waters to where she was standing, on top of one of the massive piles of stone that had once been the buildings and towers of the Southside of Obsidian City.

I've been inside one, all this time! The sloping and weirdly-angled walls, floors and doorways suddenly made complete sense to her and she couldn't help laughing.

Janaa turned, an amused look on her face. ''Yes, standing here can make me feel like that.''

She put the chest down on the stone with a soft thud. She then turned fully and clasped Sai reassuringly by the shoulders, gazing into her eyes and speaking slowly, almost sadly. ''I hope we won't see each other again. Good luck, Sai. And I hope you never have to run and hide ever again!''

She pulled Sai to her and hugged her stiffly but sincerely, and after picking the chest back up gestured that she should follow. They stepped down some rough steps that curved through the middle of the jagged hill, till they came to a narrow flat section at the bottom against which a small boat was bobbing. Janaa indicated that Sai should board, and she did.

The old, white-bearded pilot moved to help her but she was already in the boat by the time he'd turned. He shrugged and turned back to his rowers, who were holding fast to the mooring line tied onto a tall stone at one end of the narrow flat quay. She vaguely noticed the pilot was wearing a Nashivaar boatman's overcoat, but she was so used to seeing those she thought nothing of it.

Janaa handed Sai the cold dark box and said softly, ''Put it under there.'' She pointed to the seat which traversed the middle of the small craft.

Sai sat on the seat and shoved the thing under, then looked up and said hesitantly, ''I want to say thank you again, Janaa – it just seems – like the wrong word. But anyway, thank you.''

Janaa slapped the pilot's cabin roof and he whistled at the rowers, who flicked the mooring loose, picked up their oars and pushed the craft away.

As they began rowing, Janaa called out, ''Don't try to remember which one it is, Sai – you won't be able to!'' She laughed, and Sai saw her skip up the steps till she was lost in the darkness.

As the boat rippled cross the flat calm of the summer night, Sai chuckled to herself. She had been planning to try and remember which pile of broken city she had been in, and it quickly became obvious Janaa was completely right about her not being able to. Even in the daytime she'd have had little chance of keeping track of one rockpile in this maze – and in the dark, with their route winding between piles of all shapes and sizes there was even less chance and she gave up trying. She just tried to remind herself how lucky she was, to have crossed the Sisterhood of Shadows and lived to tell the tale.

Now she only had the knotty problem of arriving at Mama Nahivaar's house with Baba Nashivaar's heart in a box. Success, and I’m be free and on the way home – failure, and I’m dead. Nothing like a high-pressure show— she mused to herself as she breathed herself calm, and tried to focus on what she was going to say to Mama when she arrived.

* * *

In the event, Sai with all her planning simply didn't dare to lie. She had to accept what she was, and what she wasn't, and she knew she didn't have the confidence to try and out-dissemble Mama.
If I try to be clever, she'll catch me out.

She was also sure it would go badly if she tried to play the role of willing conspirator who had a valuable gift if only Mama will free me— Even thinking about it scared her – all she could realistically do was act as a horrified messenger, speak as if by rote, and be prepared to beg for mercy.

It was hard to make herself get off the boat at the docks, and she was still toying with the idea of leaving the box and asking the pilot to wait till she knew she was safe – but she knew that was exactly the kind of thing that would make her look complicit. With her own heart far heavier than the box containing Baba's, she reached down and grabbed the thing. Then, cradling it securely in the crook of one arm, she climbed out of the boat.

The pilot looked her up and down with lecherous curiosity, clearly desperate to know what was under the woollen robe, and Sai's mind was made up. She nodded politely, turned sharply and strode away full of purpose; the pilot disappointedly growled at his rowers to cast off. The boat heaved away on the still harbour water and Sai looked around the deserted dock. Nobody was working, no ships were in, no torches were burning and there weren't any lights on in any of the buildings near the quaysides. It felt like some breeze had blown all the life away by accident. The trees around the edge of the yard were still, and it wasn't even light enough yet for birds to be awake. The sky was still the darkest early blue and the only sounds she could hear were the distant roar of the ocean and the not-quite-as distant voices of people calling and carousing somewhere.

Not here, though.

She looked about again, revelling in this quiet solitude; she didn't remember the last time she'd felt so completely alone. For a moment she wanted to believe the entire world of people had vanished, leaving only the buildings and trees and stars and cold air. She had the sudden idea of simply taking a boat and sailing away by herself – quickly interrupted by some sensible other voice deep inside that laughed and reminded her she had no idea how to sail a boat. She sighed. Such a perfect moment had to break in the end, and she reluctantly began trudging along the quayside towards the gateway into the estate proper.

All the way along the Front Road she saw no sign of any other person. As she came closer to Baba's house she found herself slowing down though she didn't mean to. Not a single light was burning anywhere but she swung around to her left so as to arc away from it. She didn't want to see or be seen by anyone there, and she found herself feeling grateful to Janaa for letting her make this trip in the dark of the night.

As Mama's house drew closer, Sai saw some windows were lit, and home lights were burning outside the front doorway as well; that meant Mama was in, and Sai stopped walking to look carefully and think. She felt this might be the last moment in her life she had control over and she wanted to relish making this choice, that might preclude all other choices for ever.

She opened the box, and looked inside. The heart was still there, a piece of meat on a glass plate. Baba's heart; the heart of the man who had been the main focus of everything she said, did and felt, for as long as she could remember. She'd somehow always expected he would kill her in the end, and if Mama decided to punish her for Baba's death or decided she shouldn't outlive him, then all that would happen was more or less what she'd always expected. Either way, she felt sure her troubles were nearly at an end and that before the sun came up she would be free – one way or another.

The thought made tears suddenly spring from her tired eyes, and she nearly wiped them away before she realised she needed them. She allowed herself to sob a few times with the intensity of the conflict in her, more tears fell and her nose began to run.

Finally she took a couple of deep breaths to steady herself, and let the chest slam shut. Then she strode as confidently as she could manage across the cold white gravel towards Mama's house, still sniffing and allowing her heavy tears to streak her face. She slowed down as she reached the huge archway into the main lobby, expecting to be met and wanting to give the right, desperate and terrified impression. She was right, and as she entered the wide pool of light cast by the front doorway lights, two voices gasped, ''Sai?'' in amazement; footsteps pattered towards her.

She found herself being gently supported by each elbow and led towards the main reception room, and she could already hear her name echoing through the house as news of her arrival rippled through the rooms and hallways.

Someone tried to take the chest from her but she clutched it tightly and refused steadfastly to give it up. She let herself be guided towards one of the main hearths, where someone else was already stoking up a fire.

I must look awful— she congratulated herself, and began dragging her left foot slightly because it made her look even more pathetic—

Pathetic. That's exactly what I need to be.

She sniffled, and sat herself carefully on the couch she was being nudged towards. As she sat down she grimaced painfully and it caused some sympathetic cooing in response. She still clutched the chest as if her life depended on it, and she now heard someone ushering people away over other voices asking how Sai was and if they could do anything to help.

She had to stop herself from smiling. Mama can't kill me if everyone's being this nice! Then she remembered that actually, Mama could do whatever she wanted to—

And nobody knows what's in this box, yet.

Someone handed her a steaming wooden cup of a delicious warming drink that had been fortified with some alchemic, and she did begin to sharpen up. By the time Mama Nashivaar arrived, clearly only just awake, Sai felt she might even be in a better state than Mama was, and felt encouraged for the first time. She immediately put her cup on the table next to her and dropped to the floor. She knelt with the chest under her raised hips and her forehead touching the floor, hands flat in front of her head, saying nothing, simply waiting.

Mama crossed the room and stood above her for several heart-stopping seconds. Sai half expected to feel a knife pierce her neck or something to land on the back of her head, but as nothing continued to happen she began to breathe again; by the time she heard Mama's cracked and emotional voice croak, ''Get up, Sai. Look at me—'', she was certain she was ready for whatever could come next.

She raised her head and torso from the floor and knelt upright in front of Mama Nashivaar, looking into her face. The chest was revealed between her knees, but Mama didn't look at it – she was peering deep into Sai's eyes and Sai could feel Mama reaching inside her, searching for anything false, jagged, trembling.

Sai simply held Mama Nashivaar's piercing gaze and kept breathing smoothly – knowing that she had nothing to hide and didn't mean to try. The tear streaks on her face were a badge of integrity, and she simply let her whole sadness and confusion shine through her eyes. She allowed herself a secret moment of relief that she was not trying to lie; looking now into Mama's powerful eyes, she knew she would have failed.

Finally, Mama nodded, smiled and Sai felt her energy slip away as she held out both hands instead. Sai reached up hesitantly and took them, and Mama raised her to her feet, pulling her close to embrace her formally but gently.

Sai's breaths came a little more easily, and as she stepped back from the embrace she could see iridescent tears forming in Mama's eyes, which glimmered blue from crying. The sight of her inflamed eyes made tears prick from Sai's own, and as Mama saw and misunderstood this a gentle look passed across her exhausted face. She sat on the couch and pulled Sai to sit next to her; she still hadn't looked at the chest which now sat at Sai's feet.

Mama Nashivaar waved away the few still loitering, and as they scattered discreetly she looked longingly into Sai's eyes and asked her directly, ''What happened to you, Sai?''

Sai gazed down as if reluctant to tell; and she was too, so it looked perfectly genuine. She took a deep breath and said simply, ''Shadow Sisters took me. Mama.''

Mama Nashivaar clenched her mouth and eyes shut and gasped and sobbed anew, nodding as if this confirmed something she already knew. Sai looked down in shame and sadness, and said nothing more. Keeping silent was an instinct honed by years of careful servitude, and she was all-too-aware that anything she offered voluntarily now was as likely to incriminate her as it was to comfort Mama Nashivaar. In any case, the only thing Sai needed from Mama was a freedom paper and she was keeping this thought very much at the front of her mind.

Finally, Saliki's convulsive grief abated a little. She frowned as if a new thought had occurred to her. ''Whom did you see, Sai? Who talked to you? Did they have names?''

Sai answered immediately, looking directly into her eyes so as to look as truthful as she could. ''Only one person spoke to me, Mama – a woman.''

Deep breath, look down to distract her—

She flicked her gaze downward to the box at her feet and went on, ''She wouldn't tell me her name, Mama – but she gave me—''

Mama Nashivaar was indeed distracted, her eyes had followed Sai’s, and she interrupted with a slow, deliberate question, ''She gave you what, Sai?''

Sai took a final deep breath and said exactly what she'd been rehearsing, eyes incredulously wide and trying her best to make it appear spontaneous. ''I – she said I – I mean, she said I was only doing what Baba told me, and she told me if I would go away they wouldn't kill me—'' She frowned, shaking her head, ''—I told her, Mama, I told her I belong to you and I can't just go away, and she said—'' She faltered deliberately, to show that what she had to say next was almost too much for her to bear.

Then she sighed and set her face as if going on was some supreme effort of will. ''She said if I brought you Baba's – heart—'' she bowed her head so that she was looking again at the chest, ''—then you might let me go free – in exchange. She told me I had to bring it to you, so I did. If I've done wrong then I'm just – I'm sorry, Mama.'' Tears welled in her eyes, she blinked them out and sniffed.

Pathetic, keep it up!

But Mama Nashivaar was nodding, and a surprising softness suffused her face. ''Sai – oh, Sai. I knew what Bitray was having you do – all of it. Of course I did – we're – no, we were – Partners in All Endeavours – always, ever since we were children. But he broke that, Sai! and I know you had no choice but to do as he told you to. I have even heard you did well, and for that I suppose I should be impressed, with you—'' She tailed off as she saw Sai looking confused. She smiled and explained, ''But not with him, my poor Bitray, because he's dead now – and only because of himself, his own rashness. You did the best you could, I'm sure of that.''

Relief rushed through Sai's mind and the feeling was plain on her face; then Mama Nashivaar nodded towards the dark wooden box sitting like a threat between Sai's bare golden feet. Sai also looked down and her heart followed her eyes, sinking to the floor and taking a sudden chill as it encountered the hard, heavy box.

Mama Nashivaar whispered, ''Show me now.''

Sai nodded obediently and reached down, picking the cold dead weight up in hands she didn't really control. The hands placed the chest on the couch between her and Mama, pulled back the heavy lid, then fell down limp at her sides as if having obeyed they were unable to do more.

She watched Mama Nashivaar's dark, tearful face tilt down and she saw blank readiness replaced by sadness, anger, resignation, anger, again sadness – before Mama looked away, nodding and closing her eyes tightly.

She sighed deeply, and Sai could feel aenimus swirling around her. She found the melancholy that emanated from it almost comforting, but something in her tensed as she remembered these were not her own feelings. She recovered her focus, recalled what she was doing and took control of it again, finally gazing down at the heart and reminding herself coldly that it was nothing to her except the price of her freedom. She nodded decisively, but as she heard Mama speaking again the nod became more sympathetic and she once again softened her eyes.

Mama Nashivaar was musing tragically, ''I always imagined it was I who had the ultimate hand on Bitray's heart. I was wrong, wasn't I? From your hands I find myself receiving it, as a gift—''

Sai thought to herself that if it was a gift from Baba then he'd rather not have given it – and that it seemed more like a gift from the Sisterhood. She was sure Mama wouldn't be too happy to hear her thoughts, however, and kept her regard as kind as she could as she nodded in sad acknowledgement.

Finally, Mama Nashivaar reached for the chest and closed the lid gently, then once again gazed deep into Sai's eyes. ''Sai – you were Bitray's favourite, and you have helped our family in more ways than even you know. He always said there was nothing anyone could offer for you that would induce him to part with you – and I know you know that. I also know you know that this—'' she tapped the box with a gentle fingertip, ''—is the single most precious thing I could receive.'' She sighed deeply, ''His body arrived last night. Nobody saw who brought him – but whoever it was lay him on his own bed, and they—'' she only just managed to control a sob as she said it, ''—they took his heart!'' She paused to sniff, and wipe at her tears with the sleeve of her robe.

Finally, she looked frankly at Sai and said quite calmly, ''I've been dreading burying him in shame, less than whole – through his own folly. But now, he can rest with integrity among our ancestors. I believe in this you've honoured him more than if you had died with him – and you've certainly honoured me more—''

Sai smiled demurely, as if only now allowing herself to feel some pride that she had done the right thing.

Mama nodded with a thoughtful ''Hmm'' as if finally making her mind up, then added, ''You know, Sai, I will let you go. In gratitude.''

Sai blinked and frowned, worried she'd just missed something vital in what Mama had said, and almost glared up into her shimmering blue-black eyes.

Mama gazed frankly back, nodding. ''Yes, Sai. you heard me. You may stay here for as long as you want to – as a free woman – and when you are ready, you can go wherever you wish. Tomorrow after I've interred Bitray's whole body, we'll sort out details.''

Sai sat open-mouthed as Mama Nashivaar stood, clutching her precious box-shaped heart – and could only blink and nod back as she turned and walked sombrely away.

Sai silently watched her leave, and as the warm empty room filled with the roar and crackle of the fire in the huge hearth, she tried to gather her mind around what had just happened. Did Mama just tell me I could go free? Is that actually what she said? She wished someone else had been there so she could ask and be sure. She sat for a while, turning the idea over in her mind – but she wasn't ready to believe it. Her head started aching and she lay down, closed her eyes and with a few deep breaths tried to sleep.

In the end, sleep eluded her and she simply had to go for a walk instead. She wandered out through the main lobby and was slightly taken aback when Mama's Hall Keeper nodded politely and greeted her, ''Good morning, Miss Sai.''

She stared at the Keeper – herself a freed slave – and frowned as if she'd heard something very wrong, before shaking her head and managing a to stutter, ''G – good morning, Keeper B – Bediyeh.''

When the Keeper smiled back, Sai found herself almost running from the lobby simply through force of habit; Bediyeh had never failed to scold her for being slovenly or in the wrong place or looking haughty or something. Sai began to understand that the word must be out, and that perhaps after all her memory of being told she was free, was real.

Am I? Finally? Really? Free? She was having trouble assimilating it and she wandered across the front yard vaguely in the direction of Baba's house. As she approached she realised she still didn't feel strong enough to go inside, and she ended up in the body slaves' studio.

Nobody was there and she lay for a while on the bed, remembering her many nights and days of training here with Eiv – so long ago now. Suddenly she found she wanted to remember, and it was a strange feeling after only ever wanting to forget. She tried to see Eiv's face in her mind – the dozen or so years felt longer, since her infectious laugh had last echoed around this room as she tried to teach another unwilling student how to perform.

Sai smiled as she remembered the impatient yellow eyes she still missed so much. And now, it turned out that Eiv was in a way the ultimate cause of her freedom – Eiv's death was what had made Baba want his first revenge, and in the end that path led – here.

Freedom! Yes! Baba was dead – and she was free. Free!

She laughed out loud and called to the canopy over the bed as if Eiv were up there listening. ''You'd love it, Eiv – I'm free! How about that eh? Free! Do you like the sound of it? FREE!''

 She laughed and laughed, and bounced herself up off the bed, dancing across the room towards the far door and repeating to every object in the room, ''Free! Free! Free! That's what Mama said! I can go free!''

Her laughter exploded in barely-controlled bursts as she danced her way out of the back door of the studio. She found herself looking across the wide expanse of gravel and short springy grass that led down to the Nashivaar beachfront with its beautiful soft yellow sand brought all the way from the desert. She had a sudden idea, and ran as fast as she could towards the sea, pulling her woollen robe off over her head as she ran.

Only when she splashed into the cold salty waves with a squeal of delight did it finally occur to her; the energy wall had let her through, had not bounced her back and rung its summoning alarm. And here I am in the water – I could swim to Marathy if I wanted to – if only my arms were strong enough!

And then she understood what it was that had changed; and from her eyes fell hot, stinging tears of mingled joy and grief, that dropped like a suddenly undammed river into the cool, oblivious sea.

[ Edited 05:10:45 PM 04/29/19 ]

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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03:05:51 PM 05/01/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 490
Present: Resolution [pt.1, 2, 3]

When they came back to the shrine not long before sunset, Nos was already there, scraping the dried wax off the glass and polishing it with a rough cloth. She looked up with a smile as Saiyali and Esuin arrived, whispering happily together in the half-light.

She told them that no resolutions would be taking place for a while; she said there was some issue within the Sisterhood, it seemed as if one of the elder Sisters might be facing Resolution but she said it was proving difficult to find three who would deal with it.

She took a paper out of an inside pocket and unfolded it, holding it out so they could see.

Saiyali's mouth dropped open, Esuin remained impassive.

Before either could say anything, Nos quickly asked, ''One question – would either of y' agree t' this? Just answer yes or no.''

Esuin shrugged calmly and looked candidly at Nos. ''Yes,'' he said, ''Of course I will.''

Saiyali swallowed, staring hectically at the paper. She blinked and managed to blurt out an uncertain, throaty, ''I – I don't think I—'' Her eyes were filling with tears; she sniffed, blinked them back with determination, took a deep breath and looked sadly at Nos, shaking her head raggedly. ''No.'' She swallowed again and her head went on shaking as if she were even trying to forget being asked.

Nos narrowed her eyes and made a soft and thoughtful Hmm in the back of her throat, then spoke, looking at them both. ''Obviously, tell nobody, ah?''

They both nodded, Saiyali sniffed again and Nod added, ''An' come back here in—'' she thought for a moment, ''—let's say three days, shall we? Day o' Void, sunset, here.''

Again, they both nodded, and then Nos said gently, ''Sai – y' can go. Don't worry 'bout this – if y' won't do it, then y' won't, an' that's all. 'S y' right as a Sister t' say no, if that's what y' feel. 'S how it works.'' She smiled. ''Get some sleep, ah? Y' look like y' need it.''

Saiyali nodded, smiled gratefully and walked out slumped and exhausted, looking as if she was carrying something much too heavy for her to bear.

When she'd gone, Nos said softly to Esuin, ''Let's go an' talk. There's some things y' need t' know, if y' going t' do this wi' me.'' Esuin followed her out, nodding thoughtfully as she added, ''And we'll still need to find a three—''

* * *

Saiyali walked the rest of the way down the 4th Ring Road to River Park; it took about half an hour till she was standing at the quiet intersection of 4th Ring and River Park Drive. The Sun had set and the sky was quickly darkening. Looking left she could see bright lights over the North River Gate with its evening crowd of people passing inwards and outwards. Away to her right stretched River Park Drive, like a mirror image of Ocean Park Drive; the thought reminded her of her neighbourhood, which looked a lot like this one.

But thinking of her home reminded her of Yakiya.

Yakiya. At some point she was going to have to tell her she'd been Chosen by the Sisterhood, and she was sure Yakiya wouldn't approve. For some reason that bothered her, and she was trying to work out how to tell her and yet not—

What? Disappoint her? Saiyali had to admit that was exactly how she felt. As she drifted up and over the inner bank of the River Park she shook her head disconsolately, utterly at a loss for what to do. Her legs seemed to be working independently of her mind – which felt paralysed and crushed by conflicting pressures. She wandered down into the long, central valley which, unlike Ocean Park, featured enclosed little areas full of fragrant and flowering plants that filled the air with delights of scent and colour. Saiyali barely noticed any of it; she just strolled distractedly along the bottom for a while, then on a whim – perhaps seeking inspiration – she suddenly trotted up the higher outer bank of the park.

And then, there it was – across the water; the Nashivaar estate. Not close – even this far inside the estuary, crossing the Broken Harbour would be a good half hour's steady row. But the lights of their docks and the bright lights around the houses were clear and shimmering in the still-warm evening.

She stopped as if she'd walked into a wall, and gazed across the water, trying to imagine herself ever returning to that place. She thought with a flash of anger that she didn't think there was a single thing that could induce her to step inside those terrible walls and breathe that oppressive air again.

She took a deep breath, and another, feeling something like panic rising; then the next breath simply screamed from her, and went on screaming – at herself and at the memories across the water; at the people there, though she knew they couldn't possibly hear from so far away. No words came; all that emerged was a visceral, throat-shredding scream which went on and on, while tendrils of aenimus flickered from her eyes and mouth towards the twinkling horror across the water.

She stopped, her final gasp of breath catching in her chest. She coughed, retched, but nothing came and she sank to her knees, sobbing and shaking her head, raggedly whispering, ''I can't, I can't—''

She stayed like that for a few minutes, till she got her breath back and managed to look up; Nashivaar was still there, unmoved and unmoving, still lit and real as ever. She spat, wiped her mouth on her sleeve, wiped her eyes on her other sleeve and gave the Nashivaar estate a hard and bitter look. ''Never again! This is the last time I cry because of you!'' she yelled hoarsely. Then she stood up decisively and added more calmly, ''I'm going to see my friends!''

She spun on her heel and strolled down the slope and back over the inner bank to the road, where she headed smartly for the River Gate. A few minutes later she was in a wagon – and not long after that she was standing outside MOON ROOM, watching a group of merrily intoxicated, smartly-dressed revellers try to convince the door keepers that they knew the boss. They were calling him Shmoo and the door keepers were laughing heartily and failing to convince them they were not only wrong but also too wasted to be allowed inside.

Saiyali approached the door and one of the door keepers turned, thinking she was a partygoer trying to jump the queue. On seeing who it was, the woman grinned and jerked a thumb towards the people arguing that Shmoo was going to be really upset that his good friends Bishne, Ritiya and Whassyorname? were being kept from him.

The larger of the two male bouncers shook his head sadly and assured them that Shmoo would probably be perfectly happy, as long as his good friends didn't end up getting themselves hurt. The other, chuckling door keeper let Sayali in and she left the fractious people at the door trying to work out whether they were being threatened or flattered, and made her way among the beautiful, opulent crowd within.

She stepped carefully through the melee of silks, smells, sparkles and seduction, moving with the rhythms floating across from the stage so as to dodge easily between the packed-in people. For a while on reaching the middle of the room, she allowed herself to dive into the music; dancing with a few people for fun, just because the band were playing a song she liked. She clapped and swung and spun some circles with some of the interesting dancers, grinning and forgetting everything but the music and the smiling, laughing faces around her. Finally, the melody flowed into one a little slower and to a chorus of Awwww! and melodramatic goodbyes, she skipped out of the dancefloor and over towards the long back bar to find something to drink.

A cup of juice and water in her hand, she made her way up the back steps to Simoon's office at the top, and knocked hard. The door clunked open, Simoon's face appeared and he smiled what looked like a smile of genuine pleasure.

''Sai! Lovely to see you! I was hoping you'd be in tonight – we were were just talking about you. Come in!''

She smiled back and swayed in, still with the music, and Simoon clunked the door shut again behind her. In the room with Simoon were Bethifika – sitting on a large floor cushion against the far wall, and Kafy – sitting on Simoon's work desk. They both looked tired – Bethifika especially, though she jumped to her feet and ran across the room to embrace Saiyali as soon as she saw her come in the door. She held on to her as though she expected her to evaporate if she let go.

Finally she did let go, and Saiyali did not evaporate, and Bethifika stepped back gingerly and shook her head. ''Where’ve y’ been? Not home, not here! Y' alright?''

Saiyali nodded, a sly smile flashing across her face. ''Just, you know – out and about! Might be a new performance coming up.'' She shook her head inquisitively, ''—but what’s the problem? Why have you been looking for me?''

Bethifika threw up her hands and slumped again down onto her cushion. Simoon sat carefully back on his chair, and he and Kafy shared an intimate glance before they both looked at Beth as she spoke. '''S Yakiya – she's gone, an' she's going t' do something stupid, I know it!''

Saiyali frowned. ''Gone? What do you mean gone? Where?''

Bethifika gave a sad shake of her head, and raised both hands pleadingly, fingers stretched out in desperation. ''She's gone t' Nashivaar, of all places! She thinks y' old Mama's some elder Shadow Sister, an' she's convinced herself that she's th' one who ordered her dead, an' she's gone there t' sort things out. She begged me not t' follow her, said she was only telling me 'cause she wanted someone t' know where she was.'' She frowned grievously and added, almost in tears now, ''But she insisted she didn't want anyone else t' get hurt an' that – what' d she say?'' Bethifika gazed up into some imaginary floating index of memories and snapped her fingers as the right one appeared for her. ''She said she'd find resolution there, one way or 'nother, an' she said t' tell you thank you.''

Saiyali blinked and recoiled. ''Thank you? Is that all?''

Bethifika nodded and shrugged unhappily. ''It came across like goodbye really, but she never actually said that. So I don' know. But I know – y' know? I desperately want t' go an' find her—'' Kafy nodded as she said this, ''—an' I'm trying hard not t' break my promise, Sai – I'm trying really hard – but I got t' ask y', would you come wi' me, if I finally had t' break it? Y' know th' place, right?''

Saiyali started and stuttered, ''I – I – I mean – I –'' She took a breath and tried to start again. ''I mean – I would—'' she recovered herself, ''—of course! Of course I would! But Fika – you mustn't!''

Bethifika's mouth dropped open in sheer astonishment, and even Kafy looked surprised; Simoon frowned, cocked his head to the side, and a sardonic smile began to creep across his face.

Bethifika was struggling to find the right words, and her mouth opened and closed a few times helplessly, as equally helpless hands waved in front of her face evidently unable to conjure a clear thought.

Saiyali knew she would never be able to answer all the questions she was about to be asked, and she knew just as strongly that there was only one thing she could do. She shook her head. ''Alright, look – this talk, it'll have to wait. I'm sorry, Fika, Kafy – Sim – I need to go—'' All three started to protest, Bethifika the loudest, but Saiyali took a deep breath and held up her hands, intoning ''Please—'' and allowing her aenimus to pulse brightly from her, once.

They all stopped talking in a moment; Kafy and Simoon glanced suspiciously to each other, Bethifika simply looked shocked.

Saiyali went on, dauntless, ''Fika, you promised Yakiya you wouldn't go, right?''

Bethifika nodded, but shrugged violently. ''So?''

Saiyali waved both hands. ''Please – just keep your promise – please! You promised her, promise me you'll keep it!''

Bethifika looked towards Kafy and Simoon, but Kafy only shrugged. Simoon shook his head and said candidly, ''Well Beth, you said you promised—''

Bethifika clenched her eyes shut, then nodded and opened them again to glare dolefully at Saiyali as she growled, ''Fine! I promise you I'll keep my promise t' Yakiya. But what you going t' do? Go an' talk politely t' old Mama Nashivaar? If Kiya's right then she might just kill you too!''

Saiyali thought for a moment, then sighed heavily and shook her head. ''Look – I don't know if I can do anything to help Yakiya, alright? But I probably can get in to see Mama Nashivaar without getting killed, and then – well, I'll think of something. At least I can find out what's happened – sure, Mama's not going to kill me for turning up uninvited! I'm her adopted daughter, aren't I?'' She tilted her head back and smiled imperiously.

Bethifika relented and nodded, sighing. ''Fine, Sai – but if you're not back here tomorrow at opening time, me and Kafy and Nan will come looking for you and Kiya – and we won't come politely.'' Bethifika and Kafy winked at each other.

Simoon raised a curious brow towards Saiyali. ''If you're the negotiator you seem to think you are, Sai, and if you do come back tomorrow, then we'll discuss your responsibilities – and your compensation—'' he tailed off pointedly then added in a low, flat voice, ''But if you bring the wrath of the Shadow Sisterhood down on us – on me – then you and I will be having a very different discussion.'' He glared steadily and added in a flat, cold voice, ''And just so there's no doubt what I mean by that, let me add that nobody in this Firm will die before you do. Understand?''

Saiyali nodded back, her expression every bit as grave as his. ''I understand – but Sim, please know that I won't be there representing the Firm—''

Simoon shook his head and broke in, ''Oh, I do know that, Sai – but you wouldn't need to. They know how to find peoples' associates, so – be careful, alright? For my sake, if not for your own.''

Kafy laughed and winked at him. He shook his head and the look on his face said he really wasn't joking; Bethifika dropped her head into her hands with an exasperated sigh.

Saiyali clunked the door open and closed, and vanished before anyone could say another word.

* * *

An hour later, she was hammering on the door of Nos' apartment, on the fourth floor above the 3rd Ring road, not far from its junction with Whiteflowers Lane.

Nos answered the door still dressed as she had been, and wide awake. She was surprised to see Saiyali though, and peered around her and down the stairway before ushering her carefully inside.
Esuin was there, and a number of papers were laid out on Nos' wide central table. A couple of gas lights were hissing and the room was lit in shimmering blue. Curtains were drawn across all the windows, and a light incense was burning. Esuin, who'd been humming a soft melody as Saiyali entered, stopped as he looked up and saw her standing there.

Nos followed her into the room and stood, with her hands out and a quizzical expression on her face. ''Saiyali – what in sea and sky 's th' matter? Why y' back here in th' middle of' night?''

Saiyali swallowed and took a deep breath. ''I came to say – I'll do it. If I can change my mind, that is. I'll make the three, and come with you – as long as it's tonight.''

Nos nodded, smiled, and looked over to Esuin – who was also smiling and clapping his hands gently in approval. ''As long as it's tonight, ah?'' Nos repeated, and laughed. ''Ha! – well then! If it's going t' be tonight then y' better have a look at what we got so far, an' fill us in quickly–''

* * *

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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04:42:12 AM 05/03/19

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Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 490
Present: Resolution [pt.4]

In the distance the time bell at the Nashivaar docks rang once, as they pulled the small boat up onto the rough patch of beach. In the dark of a moonless night they didn't even need to hide inside aenimus; all dressed in black and with scarfs over their faces they looked like a cluster of shadows and moved as silently. They stepped quickly and carefully over the large rocks and boulders that lined the water's edge, and in a couple of minutes were standing at the bottom of one of the mossy, overgrown piles of broken old buildings that dotted the waterfront of the Nashivaar estate.

To their right, the pleasure beach with its gleaming imported sand stretched away towards the lights of the docks. Ahead of them stretched a wide smooth lawn, all the way to the sprawling complex of houses and outbuildings at the heart of the estate. The three figures crouched, still looking alertly for the slightest sign of movement. One of them pointed a finger towards the largest building ahead, then jabbed it in a number of other directions while whispering so quietly that anyone more than a few paces away wouldn't have heard a sound. The other two figures nodded and gestured as the whisperer pointed more firmly at the main house once more, and then all three shook their hands together and set off at a rapid lope in that direction.

They came to the building and crouched low against the grey walls. They were in shadow, but directly above opened a wide dark archway into a large conservatory, stone-floored and full of lush plants. With its glass roof, during the day it was bright and full of sunshine – but at night it was one of the darkest and quietest rooms in the house, unlit and unvisited. One by one the three black shapes hopped over the wall that formed the bottom of the wide empty arch, and once inside the conservatory they scampered silently between the greenery towards the door into the house.

Through the door's window panes, an empty hallway was visible; the three figures slid through, crept around the corner into the hallway, then flight by flight they ascended a stairway. Once on the way up, they ducked into a side-passage as a pair of slaves trotted quietly downstairs, one carrying a pile of towels.

They finally came to a landing at the top of the stairs, which led through to Mama Nashivaar's personal apartments. The rooms were still and quiet; though a lamp burned dimly in each one, nobody was in any of them and Mama's enormous bed was neatly made and untouched. Beckoning with a single hand, one of the three strode across the bedroom to a dark, heavy pair of curtains, pulled them back and disappeared through. The other two followed.

The three found themselves on a wide half-indoor and half-outdoor balcony, with a few plants and a low table. The view was stunning – all the way to the Northside, which at night time from this distance was a riot of sparkles, as if half the night sky had fallen down and landed on the far side of the harbour. The one who'd led them to the balcony was already pulling the scarf from her face.

It was Saiyali, and she shook her head with a confused frown. ''I don't understand it – it's like she's away from home! It's so quiet everywhere – where is everyone?''

One of the other figures lowered its scarf as well, and Nos, whose face appeared from underneath, shrugged. ''Well Sai – 's she away? You said y’ w’sure she'd be here tonight. So where is she? Somewhere else in th’ estate maybe? ‘S bigger than I expected, got t’ say.''

The third figure quickly padded back to the curtain, pulled it the tiniest bit aside and looked through, nodding with satisfaction and letting the curtain drop, but not moving and seeming to keep attention focused on listening for any sounds from the other side of it.

Saiyali was racking her brains: Where?

She hadn't actually thought Mama Nashivaar would be in bed, knowing that Yakiya had come here less than a day ago. Nos had been the one to insist that they begin by going directly to Mama's apartments, and it made sense. But Saiyali hadn't mentioned Yakiya at all. Best to let that be a surprise, definitely nothing to do with me; she had a feeling that when the surprise broke, she herself would be far from the main focus.

Still; where? They couldn't go searching every guest suite just in case Mama happened to be with Yakiya in one of them. In a guest suite? Shadow Sisters, chatting in the Rose Rooms maybe? She thought clearly not; if the situation was as fearful as it felt, they'd be somewhere discreet, secluded.

What if they're in Baba's house—

And then she had a sudden flash of insight; ''Downstairs!” she whispered, “Come, this way!'' and pulled up her scarf, crossing to the curtains where Esuin still listened.

She mouthed, ''Basement'' and after sliding the curtain back to make sure nobody was there, they slipped across the room and back to the stairs. No-one appeared on their way back down, and the central lobby was deserted except for Keeper Bediye who was dozing on her couch. They tiptoed around the edge, on the shadowy side of the columns holding up the main landing, and at the back of the lobby they found the passage that ran towards the kitchens.

They followed this till they came to one of the stairways leading down into the basements. These were also deserted, and they made their way through a darkened store full of shelves, cabinets boxes, sacks and chests to a door that Saiyali knew must lead further down, into a sub-basement.

She knew this because she'd been into the same sub-basement in Baba's house, more than once – and as they reached the same innocuous door in Mama's house she felt horrible anticipation run through her. It made something in her mind want to scream, and a strange pinching sensation fluttered along the nine wide scars up, down and around her torso. She took a deep breath and popped the door open a crack.

On a warm orange flicker of fire came the sharp acrid smell of smoke loaded with the sour metallic tang of blood and sweat.

I was right. Sayali shuddered.

Voices were talking in low tones from somewhere down the stairs, and Nos nodded confidently. She gently pulled Saiyali backwards and opened the door a little further, stepping through it and making sure Esuin followed close behind; Esuin gestured that Saiyali should close the door and follow. They crept down the stairs till they saw shadows of the people in the room, on the far wall at the bottom. Saiyali shuddered; it was exactly the same as Baba's.

As they descended, Mama Nashivaar's voice began intoning a song, and the three of them felt invigorated and awakened by it. Nos indicated that Saiyali should stay back; Saiyali nodded gratefully.

They'd already discussed her role in the actual resolution, Nos and Esuin had both agreed that her emotional connection to Mama Nashivaar made her presence as much a liability as an asset. They'd been clear that she had to stay uninvolved and preferably out of sight unless absolutely necessary.

Saiyali hoped she could stay unseen, and that it would all be over quickly. She took a deep, quietly resonant breath and allowed her aenimus to blur her edges, then put her back against the wall at the bottom of the steps and slid along till the people in the room were only just out of her line of sight. Saiyali had recognized Mama Nashivaar's voice immediately but as she stopped singing, the other – a man's – spoke gently. ''I think this'll be the last go, Ma' Saliki. She's barely awake as it is.''

The look in Nos' eyes said she knew exactly who the voice belonged to. Her frown was sharp and angry, and she held out a hand to Esuin to stop him, just as they both reached the end of their wall. Saiyali could see they were waiting for the right moment to show themselves, and she began to suspect this resolution might not be such a simple matter after all.
Mama Nashivaar said condescendingly, ''Just go on with it please, Nan – commentary really isn't necessary.''

Nan? Yanan? Saiyali could hardly believe it. As she frowned in confusion there was a weak groan from what was evidently a third person also in the room somewhere. She squinted hard, wishing she had heard any other voice but this one; Yakiya! What are they doing to her?

She opened her eyes reluctantly and noticed Nos and Esuin had moved from the bottom of the stairs into the room itself. She could no longer see either of them, and as she took a breath she heard Nos' voice – powerful and full of conviction; a voice she had only heard in Mamas and Babas before.

''It is time.'' There was a pause, then, ''No, Nan – please – just stand back an' put that down; this aint something y' need t' be involved in.'' She spoke with calm authority, and Yanan—

Is it really him?

—evidently complied. There came a light clatter of something being dropped to the floor, and Nos said, ''Thanky', Nan. Just stay where y' are, will y'?''

Another pause and a couple of footsteps. Then Nos spoke again in the same commanding tone as before, if anything even more so as she announced, ''Now, Saliki Ngishava'naa Wishele—''

Mama's voice broke in, laughing. ''Can I just stop you there please, Nosuliya Sherendi Bakambe? Oh yes, we can all do full names; and how about you, Esuin Suuinte Merindjo Saknamaar? To what do I owe this honour? Have you come to ask me to make a three?'' she laughed.

Nos went on, unperturbed. ''Y' mock your own Sisters, Saliki? Why? How many names d' you know? How many could you properly call in full, hmm? Too many. Y 've broken th' vow, Sister – Resolution is come. Prepare yourself—''

Mama Nashivaar cried out, ''Na-a-a-ah! No, you must not – Sister! You have no authority in this with only two – where is the three, that seals it? Without three, no Sister has the right – so reveal three, or leave!''

Mama's own voice was growing in depth and power now, and Saiyali's heart felt like it might jump out of her mouth if it beat any more frantically. She had to show herself—

I have to!

She took a deep breath. Then she took another – and finally she stepped forward into the light. She immediately saw Yakiya, naked and hanging by her wrists, which were bound in thick rope that was itself suspended from hoops fixed into the walls to her left and right. Her head hung down onto her chest and she was covered in dark, smeared blood; a pool of it glistened around her feet, which hung loose and untied at the end of slack legs clearly too weak to hold her up.

Yanan was standing just beyond her with his blood-covered hands clasped on on top of his head. He looked suddenly surprised to see Saiyali step out into the room; as did Mama Nashivaar – but only for a moment.

Saiyali tried to look anywhere except Mama Nashivaar's half-smiling face.

In the very middle of the room stood Esuin and Nos, Esuin closer to Saiyali – who could see and smell the aenimus covering his hands and apparently his whole upper body with an iridescent sheen. Between Mama Nashivaar and Yakiya stood Nos, glaring at Saliki but glancing every few seconds at Yanan. The room was silent except for the low hiss of the torches and candles. Saiyali kept her breaths strong and deep – though she wasn't sure what she might do with all the aenimus she felt, she supposed it was good to be ready to do something.

Mama Nashivaar laughed a cold, throaty giggle as she said Saiyali's name, ''Ahhh – Saiyali Bilandu'te Saliki'we Nashivaar; you are the third member of our little Resolution party! Of all people – my own little Sai has come for me. I must say, if it were anybody else but me facing this – absurdity – I would have laughed myself to death by now. Nosuliya – are you serious?''

Nos nodded grimly. ''I am, Saliki. I'm sorry y' won't see how serious it is; y' made a network o' your own inside th' Sisterhood an' you know that's forbidden. Nobody's above th' vows – it just took long t' find a three t' do th' right thing, 'cause so many are scared o' your name – even in th' Sisterhood, that recognizes no name!''

Saiyali gulped, looking from Nos to Mama and reminding herself to keep breathing, as Nos went on insistently, ''That's why resolution's come. A great name's against everything th' Sisterhood is, an' means.'' She was suddenly having to control her voice as anger rushed through her. ''You swore th' same vows, Saliki! We're not just some bloody Convocation! Th' Ancient Noble Sisterhood does not belong t' you!''

Mama Nashivaar sighed at the outburst. ''And you think you're going to be the one to resolve me?'' She laughed. ''Ha! – You do know it's been tried? That other Marathy animal who took my Bitray from me? I have my sister here to thank for dealing with her.'' She waved a hand towards Yakiya, and cocked her head with a derisive snort towards Nos. ''Now you – and after you, there may be others brave enough, eventually. And they will fail – as you have.''

Nos shook her head. ''We've not failed; we can't fail. You must find resolution; there's no escape, no victory over it – an' especially not f' you, Mama! If everyone here dies tonight, you still lose th' most. You, th' greatest prize, all that pleasure an' power ended, an' th' Sisterhood enduring anyway.''

Saiyali smiled at this; but Mama Nashivaar's smile was broader, and full of bitterness. She pointed at Yakiya, who had stopped moving – though Saiyali could see she was still breathing. ''That – that is Yakiya Wisheleku Gramak Nashivaar—'' Saiyali gasped; Mama Nashivaar nodded in her direction. ''Yes – she recognizes the name. She listens, that one – cleverer than she lets on. She knows. We're birth-sisters, Yakiya here and me. Now, if I didn't take the Sisterhood seriously, would I be giving my own birth sister a thousand cuts for her dereliction, for her sin? Hmm, would I? I take the Sisterhood very seriously!''

Saiyali had an idea that Mama Nashivaar was only a moment away from bursting into laughter, and she frowned and opened her mouth. Nos half-turned and held up a hand. Saiyali nodded, and said nothing, with great relief.

Nos spoke again, her voice hardening yet further. ''Saliki, I'm aware how seriously y' take th' Sisterhood as it threatens your little realm—'' She flicked her gaze to Yanan, who suddenly hoisted his hands back up onto the top of his head from where they'd evidently slipped down onto the back of his neck. He looked at her as if expecting her to speak, but first she merely shook her head disappointedly, before lamenting, ''An' I wanted you t' to be Chosen; I should 've known y' only wanted t' be someone's pet—'' she spat this, but Yanan only shrugged.

''Why in the void would I want to be a Shadow Sister?'' he asked with a derisive sneer. ''Why would I want to be told who I get to kill, and when?'' He snorted. ''I'm happy to be a pet, my pet – but I won't be commanded. Shadow Sister, ech! I'm not even a female.''

Nos sighed, and Esuin rolled his eyes and shook his head disparagingly. Yanan raised a brow at Esuin threateningly, but Esuin shook his head and calmly whispered, ''Don't—''

Before Yanan could step forwards, Yakiya groaned. Everybody looked at her in amazement; she was barely even recognizable under so much blood and even opening her mouth was clearly a struggle. She didn't open her eyes, or move anything apart from her mouth, but her voice struggled and croaked, ''Came here. Myself. End. Voidstone—'' No more words came but was still breathing, barely.

Saliki shrugged. ''She wants to die wearing the Voidstone. She agreed to the thousand cuts if I promised it. So I promised it. I'm still not sure though, if I'll be keeping that promise—'' She smirked and drew from a pocket of her robe a shiny black chain which she held up high; the odd-shaped piece of nothing whatsoever which was held by its hand-like clasp dangled in the air in front of them.

Esuin's eyes widened in astonishment but Nos held up her other hand and simply shook her head. She spoke crisply. ''Saliki, please – even if y' are its keeper, th' Voidstone's not yours t' toy with; if a Sister wants t' be consumed, nobody can deny her; even if she has broken vows. Y' must put it on her!''

Mama Nashivaar looked thoughtful for a moment, and with a sigh she dropped her hand. She had almost begun to take a step forward, she seemed about to comply and hang the stone on Yakiya – when several things happened very quickly.

Saiyali noticed movement to her left at the bottom of the stairs, and she turned to look. The movement of her head made Mama Nashivaar also glance towards the stairway, and there appeared Lakni Sheb, Mama's loyal assistant and proxy. She smiled in recognition at Saiyali and began nodding respectfully to Mama when she saw Esuin and Nos and her eyes widened in horror.

''Mama!'' she gasped.

The gasp made Esuin turn to look – and as he did so, Yanan's hands flew forwards over his head; in them was a long blade that had evidently been fastened to his back. He reached out, grabbed Nos by the hood and as quick as lightning drew the blade across her throat. Blood pulsed from her and she dropped into the sticky pool around Yakiya's feet, her own blood adding to it in ugly jagged spurts.

Yanan then lunged towards Esuin – and at the same moment, Mama Nashivaar threw the Voidstone around her own neck and vanished.

Saiyali could think of nothing but Hide! She raised her voice to cover herself in blurry aenimus, and began backing away into the nearest corner, terrified and desperately looking about though she didn't even know what for.

Lakni Sheb reached out towards Esuin and began intoning something ugly and threatening; Esuin took a deep breath and raised both his hands above his head, screaming a series of indecipherably fast syllables in a strange falling scale and throwing his aenimus-covered hands down towards the floor on the last syllable.

There was an invisibly blinding flash, and everything stopped.

Saiyali couldn't move – not even her eyes – but she could somehow see. The others were similarly frozen; Esuin was the only one unaffected. He turned to Lakni Sheb's distorted face and smacked his left hand on her forehead with a word, then spun around and slapped Yanan likewise on the brow, with his right hand. There was a flash of black around each of their heads and Esuin turned again. He was clapping his hands together so fast they began to blur, and he was breathing in a strange way Saiyali had never heard before, nostrils distended with rapid deep breaths. His eyes darted here and there as he searched for Mama Nashivaar.

Saiyali was sure she could see her blurred shape, disturbing the pattern of the stones in the wall behind where she had been. Esuin suddenly saw it himself; he took a step forward and intoned a few low, piercing syllables that hurt Saiyali's ears. As he reached the last syllable he threw the aenimus from his splayed fingertips in a fine spray that became even finer and turned silvery as it travelled through the air.

Mama Nashivaar screamed in pain as the cloud covered her and Saiyali realised she was also free to move again; Esuin's cloud of aenimus had also banished his little area of stillness.

Yanan dropped heavily to the floor behind Esuin, mid-lunge, and his long blade clattered dangerously towards Saiyali. Nobody else noticed and it seemed as if everyone had forgotten she was even there. She easily dodged the blade as it danced and rang towards her, and when it had hit the wall and stopped moving, she instinctively bent and picked it up.

Lakni Sheb dropped to her knees and grabbed her own head with both hands, crying out in agony as the stillness was banished and she could physically react to what Esuin had done to her. She didn't fall unconscious like Yanan though; she struggled to clear her mind and stand up. Meanwhile, Mama Nashivaar had managed to recover her own energy and was raising her voice in a confusing rise-fall chant, gesturing at Esuin as if she were trying to throw her own hands at him.

What hit him though, was not her hands but the aenimus she was expertly gathering on them. And it wasn't a spray, as his own had been, but heavy lumps that pummelled him and made him stagger backwards, raising his hands to protect his face. He was whispering, and with his raised hands he began flicking aenimus with fingers that flew out as flexible, agile tentacles. As each one touched a flying lump it burst like a bubble, but he couldn't catch enough of them. He finally fell to his knees with a yelp, again holding his arms up as he trying in vain to stop his head from being pounded. He bent over towards Yanan's head and Mama's victorious smile indicated she thought he was finished.

She took a breath for her next assault and in that moment Esuin growled into Yanan's ear, ''Hold Saliki!''

The unconscious body of Yanan opened its eyes and lifted itself clumsily up as Mama Nashivaar began her song again, aiming at him this time with a look of alarm in her eyes. What had felled Esuin though seemed to have no effect on Yanan, and he strode stiffly across to Mama Nashivaar and grabbed her firmly despite her protesting shouts, winding his arms around hers and pressing his hands onto the back of her head. His face stayed slack and impassive the whole time, and even as he held her and she struggled against it, his expression remained barely conscious.

Esuin smiled as he struggled painfully to his feet, but he wasn't quite upright when Lakni Sheb reached out and grabbed his head from behind, calling something that sounded like the same banishing chant he himself had sung. He screamed in agony and dropped back to his knees.

Saiyali had seen enough; in sudden rage, shadowy aenimus bloomed from her entire body as she screamed ''No!'' at the top of her voice and lunged towards Mama Nashivaar with the long glass blade held in both hands, straight out in front of her.

Mama Nashivaar saw her approaching and screamed at Yanan to let her go, Yanan blinked as his mind was released by Lakni Sheb's words from Esuin's control, and his arms began awkwardly to uncurl from around Mama Nashivaar. She raised her hands, opened her mouth and took a breath to scream something terrible—

But Saiyali was quicker. The blade reached Mama Nashivaar's chest as her voice began rising into a new, harsh note, and as the glass shard carved into her heart that note became a shriek. Aenimus flashed chaotically all around her, and Saiyali joined in her scream – but kept pushing forward. The blade sliced out of Mama Nashivaar's back and into Yanan's chest – still she kept pushing, till they both toppled over backwards in a spray of blood and saliva and raw aenimus. Mama was dead before she even hit the floor; Yanan was pinned there by her body and his own long blade. He grunted, struggled hopelessly for a few seconds, then lay still.

Saiyali just about managed to stop herself slipping over and falling on top of them, and she stumbled back breathlessly and turned to Lakni Sheb, tears of anger and hurt falling from eyes. Lakni Sheb held up her hands and began backing away, shaking her head and stammering wordlessly. Esuin staggered back up too, and he made to clap his hands together. He missed, tried again, missed again and growled. Lakni Sheb backed further away, now coherent, fearfully begging him not to hurt her with the aenimus again.

Saiyali tried to cry out the same thing, Don't hurt her! – but her voice wouldn't come as anything but another sob. She shook her head, waved a dismissive hand and turned back to where Mama and Yanan lay pinned together. She saw the Voidstone drawing aenimus from both of them into itself; there evidently wasn't much left in either of them. She sneered, leaned down, and pulled the stone's chain till its catch broke; she jerked the thing away from Mama's body. At the same moment, a stifled cry from Lakni Sheb ended her pleading.

Saiyali turned, with the Voidstone swinging on its chain, and saw Esuin rubbing his head painfully but managing to stand. He was nervously, jerkily looking about him, as if he still expected to be attacked. He stuttered, ''We – we need to – to—'' but some pain made him squint and growl and lose the thought.

Saiyali suddenly noticed that Nos was still breathing – and then she saw Yakiya's foot draped limply across Nos' throat. Her mouth dropped open and she fell to her knees, sobs tearing from her throat as she kissed the foot and gently moved it off of Nos.

Esuin was panting oddly again, but he was clearly steadier and calmer. He leaned over to look, and asked, ''Is she alive? Nos, I mean?'' He sounded more curious than concerned.

Saiyali nodded. ''I think so – just about anyway. It looks like Yakiya saved her life—'' She placed her hands in a few places around Nos' neck and chest, humming a simple healing melody and shaking her head. ''We need to get her to a proper healer, I can't fix this.''

Esuin nodded and said, ''Fine – I'll hold her under the arms here – you take her legs. Come on, we can do it—''

Saiyali nodded, then snapped her fingers. ''Wait a moment!''

She strode back over to Mama Nashivaar's spreadeagled form, and lifted up her right arm. Slipping the large seal ring from Mama's thumb onto her own, Saiyali winked and whispered, ''Thankyou, Saliki Mama. Sleep well.''

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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01:29:45 PM 05/03/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 490
[A Page Tumbling in the Wind]

Getting Around
If the problem is getting from A to B (sometimes via C, D or X), those with means will of course buy or hire slaves or animals, and a vehicle to have them pull; problem solved. For those of us who need to be more careful about our spending, finding the right transport to suit not only the intended route but also the available budget and relevant time restrictions, is vital.

Of course, for really long trips – the kind that take you literally from one side of the Empire to the other – the best solution for many is to go by sea. All the major coastal cities have extensive port facilities, and the following cities' ports have Seas and Waterways Counsel offices: Gold City, Opal City, Obsidian City, Marsh Gate (Marathy). Full addresses for each can be found in the Useful Contacts List at the back of the Guide. Since sea travel depends so much upon unpredictable, changeable factors such as weather and the ocean security situation, we can only offer general guidelines; we recommend you contact the Seas and Waterways Counsel in the city you're travelling from to discuss the details of your particular journey, if you have questions not answered here.

You will also find that travel agents compete for business at the ports themselves, so finding a reasonably-priced berth for a journey of whatever length is usually easy. Don't forget that the price of the berth will always be related to how comfortable and safe it is, and what other facilities are provided; never forget that if you do not pay a fee for food and water, you will need to provide your own. Travellers have been known to die of thirst at sea for forgetting this, so bear it in mind: ships' captains and crew will not provide sustenance for passengers unless their indemnity states they must. It is vital you check the terms of your berth carefully so you know exactly what you must provide for yourself. If in doubt, speak to the quartermaster before departure (preferably before you even embark) to make sure your name is on the relevant board and barrel lists – you do not want to discover it isn't, when you're already half a day out to sea.

Approximate travel times** between major ports are as follows:
Obsidian City – Salt Marsh: 3-4 days
Salt Marsh – Opal City: 6-7 days
Opal City / Jade City / Ruby City: Bay City Ferry journeys average 12-15 hours
Opal City – Gold City: 8-9 days
Obsidian City – North Shore: 7-8 days
Opal City – Marsh Gate: 5-6 days
Marsh Gate – Stoneport: 3-4 days

(**Travel times subject to variation due to wind-speed and direction)

If sea travel is not your preferred way to go (of course if you wish to travel to or from Marathy you will have no other choice!) then there are a number of ways that you can exploit the Empire's extensive and well-maintained road network.

The most cost-effective way to undertake a long journey is of course by Train. Road Trains have a number of advantages over sea travel. Most obvious is the fact that not every town in the Empire is by the sea! Also, sea travel does not suit everybody; from seasickness to fear of drowning, there are all kinds of reasons why anybody might not wish to travel over the ocean.

Second, there is zero risk of death from hunger or thirst from simply overlooking some detail of the arrangements, since road trains stop at least once per day to allow passengers to make connections or stop off. Additionally, many trains allow travellers to simply hop on and off for short distances, if they have the space available. Bear in mind though that such short, improvised journeys often cost more than if they were booked in advance; also, you may end up sleeping on the floor, as berths in a train usually need to be booked in advance.

Third, though standard trains travel relatively slowly to allow for sightseeing and short journeys, express transport is normally available. It is more expensive – but it always cuts travel times significantly, and is often the favourite choice of the tightly-scheduled professional traveller – assuming they do not already own their own fast transport.

Our most central city is of course Holy City, and though it is possible to travel there from Gold City on a boat up the River Tzomzi, travel times by road train are as follows:
Holy City / Obsidian City: 10 days (express: 4 days)
Holy City / Ruby City: 8 days (express: 3 days)
Holy City / Gold City: 6 days (express: 2 days)
Holy City / Salt Marsh: 7 days (express: 3 days)

Road trains depart from travellers yards near city gates, and from main Town Circles or one of--

[Page ends]

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08:30:31 AM 05/07/19

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Past: End of the Beginning

The birds' cry was still the same as the first time she'd heard it, on a ship a lot like this one, all those years before. She'd been a child then, and she knew to the very day how long it was since she'd stumbled out onto the deck of that awful ship and seen the overwhelming vastness of Obsidian City and the Broken Harbour arrayed for leagues in every direction. She seemed to remember it had been hotter than this – earlier in the day, too – and though the seabirds' repetitive, falling cry had been exactly the same, today it sounded more like a cry of victory, a cry of delight, of exultation. Home! She happily imagined they were crying.

Home! Home!

She'd been relieved to discover Mama was as good as her word. After spending a day wandering more or less aimlessly around the estate and finding that most of the slaves no longer wanted to speak to her, then spending another day walking the streets of the Southside just as aimlessly and being ignored there too, she was keen just to be gone. There was nothing for her here but bad memories and scorn; she didn't even attend Baba Nashivaar's interment. Nobody asked her to.

When Mama Nashivaar finally called Sai to discuss her release, Sai found even that coolly detatched politeness a refreshing change from being constantly blanked. Mama was generous, too – a private cabin on one of the newest ships in the fleet, and a chest full of clean and beautifully-tailored travelling clothes waiting in the cabin. All the jewellery she'd earned legitimately she was allowed to keep, and Mama also gave her a large leather pouch full of coins to keep her fed and entertained on the way, and let her afford comfortable accommodation and transport when she arrived at North Shore. She wasn't even tempted to return inside Baba's old house to retrieve her hidden treasure from the cellar. She didn't need it, and the memories attached to it were such that she really wanted to try and forget. In any case, walking around Baba's house – even without him in it – was a fearful prospect.

She was lavishly and humbly grateful to Mama Nashivaar for giving her so much and letting her go with such honour, and when Mama handed her a sealed envelope of smooth, thick and expensive paper she almost trembled to open it. Inside, the thing she had dreamed of for so many long, desperate years – a Freedom Paper signed by Mama Nashivaar and her Law Chief, naming her Saiyali Bilandu Nashivaar and stating she was due respect as an adopted child of Saliki Nashivaar. It was Dated and Sealed, and the most perfectly beautiful thing Saiyali thought she had seen in her whole life.

She reached into her inside pocket to rub it again reassuringly with her finger, and couldn't help another smile. She was standing high on the stern of the fast cargo Deep Rider, watching ropes being cast off below her and hearing the warning shouts of the rigging crew dropping sails behind her. Beyond the wooden expanse of the deck, the Nashivaar Docks now slipped away and she was glad she asked Mama to make sure nobody came to say goodbye. Her arrival had been unceremonious and she wanted her departure to be just as mundane and unmarked; she'd been an object in her time here, not a person, and she didn't want to depart like someone loved or important – that was just a lie. Better to leave as a piece of cargo, unwaved-at and unacknowledged except on paper.

By the time I get there, maybe I'll feel like a real person—

They followed a deep channel across the Broken Harbour as they eased towards the ocean made golden by the low orange sun. Saiyali moved further around the ship to get a better view of the Northside; it too was lit dramatically by the sunset, as well as by the blue gas lights that glittered increasingly as the evening drew on. Smells of distant cooking and burning drifted across the rippling waters, and countless voices shouted busily in the distance. Life was going on as it ever had and ever would; she wouldn't be missed there at all. The idea comforted her somehow.

The only memories Sai had which came close to being pleasant were connected with the Northside. Looking back, she could see that she had never felt so free as when she was leaving the Masnamaar estate with Baba's lens tucked into her clothes, had never felt so strong as the moment when she pushed Kishai off the stairs and watched the shock fill her eyes.

The few hours and days she'd spent in the estates and Socials of the Northside were evidence to her that she might still have something like a normal life. There had been people among the dozens she'd met as part of the Nashivaar entourage who had spoken to her like a human, like someone with ideas and feelings of her own. Not many – but a few. At Nashivaar itself, she was part of the furniture and was never treated as anything else – but when they went out, she was part of a rich and glamorous retinue, and some of the honour and respect which the Nashivaar matriarch and patriarch carried with them landed on her as well.

From high on a cargo ship in the middle of the harbour, all the tallest landmarks of the city were easily visible, and she felt a vague pang of sadness that she'd never be able to see some of the beautiful places Obsidian City was famous for and which she had read about with fascination – but which Mama and Baba had never visited with her. The Obsidian Palace, the River Gardens, the Central Shrine, the Statue Circle – would all have to remain as they were; in her imagination. Her sadness was tempered by the knowledge that the wonders of Obsidian City were really just the shade of her own enslavement; then again, some of the grandeur and opulence struck her as mockingly overdone, from the point of view of someone who was herself just another beautiful object.

I – me! – the most beautiful thing in the city – how many times did Baba say it? She chuckled ironically, turning away from the city that she in her way had outshone; that the Nashivaar patriarch had once sincerely claimed would be a less marvellous place without her in it.

As they reached the Outer Harbour, though, and the kaleidoscopic glory of the city docks came into full view, she somehow doubted this place was any less marvellous today than yesterday. And then tomorrow, more wonders would pour in to enthral and amaze tomorrow's Babas and Mamas. Looking at the hundreds of enormous, sleek, brightly-rigged ships along the vast crescent quayside that curved into the hazy distance, it was clear there was no shortage of things marvellous and mundane, to supply the city's insatiable greed and curiosity.

They drew further out, past even more and bigger ships moored out to sea, waiting for berths at the crowded city docks or being supplied by lighters as they lay at anchor. The profusion of small craft with their headlights and tail lights was even more bewildering here at its heart than it was from the dockside where ships blocked much of the view. From where she stood, Sai could fully appreciate the miracle of collective effort that kept all these boats from hitting each other; the vast, chaotic dance they performed together, improvised on every breath of wind and swell of water.

She had never seen such accidental grace and beauty as clearly as from this high deck at the centre of it; this was the dance that kept the city fed just as hers had in its shameful way been part of a dance that kept the city happy. True or not, the thought made her smile, and for a moment the years of humiliation and despair became simply years.

And I'm still here, after all!

The Outer Harbour was falling behind now and they were slipping to the left of the Central Point Light Tower, where the open sea began; she could feel the swell growing under the ship. From so close and with half the sun below the horizon, the tower's light was painfully bright; Sai turned gratefully away from the tower and almost ran to the other end of the deck she was on, to where she could look down over the bow of the ship with its enormous figurehead. Standing so far forward she could feel the huge vessel pulling its vast bulk ahead on the wind. She looked up and behind her to see the larger sails now being unfurled down each of the four main masts. As each sail dropped and was secured by the shouting, cursing crew overhead, she felt the ship beneath her rumble and creak on; with each new duskward rush, she felt glorious exhilaration.

The wide, darkening ocean stretched ahead, and a full moon was rising from it. Away to her left she could see the shadowy line of low hills that ran south from the city, along the coast. She was suddenly struck by the idea that in all her years at Nashivaar she'd never actually been outside the city walls – till now. She'd met people from all across the vast lands – hundreds of them, from every city and some of the other important Settlements and Colonies – and she'd heard plenty about the rest of the Empire from their incessant talk about the places that they came from, owned, and made their money in. She'd never really cared, most of it was irrelevant to her and she only listened so she'd know how to behave and what to say to improve the mood.

The only source of information about the Empire that she'd been truly interested in was her Pocket Guide. Baba Masnamaar had wished her satisfaction and curiosity with it and she had indeed found both. Curiosity in the that book's descriptions were brief and mostly factual; there was no sense of what it was actually like to be in the places it described. In the end she spent far longer trying to imagine herself standing high on famous mountain peaks – or walking the wide parks and arcades of Holy City – or sailing on an ornate Gold City ferry – or diving into the Bay of Jewels – than she did with her nose in the actual book reading.

On the other hand, there was satisfaction in knowing that she knew things she wasn't supposed to know, and that most of the other slaves neither knew nor cared about; also, satisfaction in being able to put her own life in context; she now knew from reading that slaves all over the Empire did work at least as bad as her own, and somehow felt less alone knowing that beyond the Nashivaar estate there were so many thousands of others kept as toys, tools or transport. And then again, there was the simple satisfaction of knowing where she was and how she came to be there – in her opinion, the least anyone deserved to know about themselves.

But as she watched the distant Sea Heath darken and shrink, she realised she would never be visiting the places she'd imagined so many times. She finally understood that she'd only spent so long imagining them and dreaming one day of seeing them, because the one place she really wanted to go she didn't dare imagine—


The entry on Marathy in the Pocket Guide – the one that had so stunned her when she read the word through Baba Masnamaar's lens – had been the most disappointing of all. It told her nothing she cared about, gave her no impression of the place she barely even remembered, and was so dry and lacking in comfort for her that it actually hurt her mind to read it.

Leaning on the rail now, she drew it from her inside pocket where she'd put it earlier as a kind of totem for her journey. She flicked open the familiar and well-thumbed, scruffy pages that had once so nourished her imagination. Now she found in the dark she couldn't even focus on them, the pages blurred and her eyes throbbed painfully with the effort of trying to read.

She shook her head and let the book drop, returning her gaze to the sky ahead where the full moon was now almost completely above the sea. She wondered if the people in Marathy could see the same full moon rising now; she tried to imagine it rising over forests she couldn't remember, reflecting from a river she had to invent, and she realised her imagination didn't need the book any more.

I have a future now!

She burst out laughing, the power of the thought too much for her to contain, and she held the book above her head like a victory prize, screaming triumphantly, ''I don't need you any more!'' and she threw it, high and hard. It flew away across the bow of the ship, taken by the wind from behind, further and further till Saiyali wondered if she could possibly have thrown it so far; then it curved down, down towards the water right in the middle of the bright path of light reflected from the low yellow moon.

She saw the book splash, then it was gone beneath the roaring, groaning bulk of the Deep Rider.

She had a sense of being swept along and upwards on some rush of wild freedom, just as the ship was being buffeted along by booming gusts of untamed wind. She felt that even if the vessel disappeared from under her, she might simply fly to Marathy.

She stayed awake till the moon was high, riding her ship along the rolling path home and not looking back at the dark line of distant hills, glad that when the sun rose the Empire would be gone beyond the horizon.

* * *

It was indeed, and when Saiyali awoke the following morning, all she could see in every direction was blue ocean. The wind still blew hard from behind, filling the huge sails – which now were all rigged in a vast spectacle of yellow and black, and pushing the enormous ship forward so fast that it and creaked and hummed constantly. It was moving so fast that once again she felt as if she was flying, and she spent almost the whole day outside simply enjoying the rush and rumble. She mixed a little with some of her fellow travellers but didn't say a lot, and she half-heartedly joined in a few board games and card games.

Her mind was on Marathy and what she would do when she arrived. She couldn't stop herself going up on to the top deck again and again to look forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the far coast before the lookouts did. She knew they were at the tops of the masts, and she knew the trip was meant to take at least a week; but she found herself peering pointlessly into the hazy greying distance more and more often. On the third day, the sun blazed from the sky and she didn't go inside or speak to a single person all day; she just stood in her spot, as high and as far forward as possible, willing the ship on faster, faster!

She stayed up all that night too, because the sky was clearer than she'd ever seen it before. She found herself recalling Eiv's stories about the mythical beasts in the stars. She saw again, even more clearly than ever, that the animal shapes were just made up at random and that there were so many possibilities for shapes in the stars that it was hard to even know where to stop.

When the Sun rose on her fourth day at sea she'd more or less invented a whole new set of star animals and made them counterparts to Eiv's star animals. She spent some of the morning drawing them clumsily in a small book she bought from the ship's quartermaster, and then slept till the afternoon.

She woke up hungry, and the wind had picked up considerably; the swell was now making the ship pitch up high and crash down hard. She dressed quickly in a warm cloak and went out to look; this dramatic mood of the sea had once frightened her, on her dark voyage the other way as a child, but now at her return it felt edgy and exhilarating. She made her way to her favourite deck and walked around till she was in the lee of the wind. It was strong, and she could see some of the smaller sails had been taken down. There were a lot of crew out and above, and they seemed quieter than usual.

Behind the ship the sun was invisible beyond a thickening grey veil, and the waves everywhere were flecked with white, still blowing forwards with them but hard now, and Saiyali was extremely glad to be on a large ship with a crew who evidently knew what they were doing. The shadows were deepening overhead and heavy clouds were gathering; a few impatient raindrops pattered down from the dark and sullen sky.

It felt like there was going to be a storm.

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